Remembering Williams last F1 title win - 25 years ago

Posted on 26 October, 2022

It's hard to believe that 25 years have passed since Williams last won an F1 title. 1997 was a landmark season for the British team and their Canadian star Jacques Villeneuve, for many reasons...

After a stuttering start to the 1997 season, the jury was out on Jacques Villeneuve as his rival Michael Schumacher's title bid gathered pace. However, with the pressure growing, a dramatic end to the season saw him crowned Canada’s only world champion thus far, while the German's campaign ended in disgrace and an unexpected trip to court.

Here’s how it all played out...

Jacques Villeneuve (Williams) celebrates with David Coulthard (McLaren)

Pre-season ambitions

A lot happened in Formula 1 during the off-season between 1996 and 1997. Williams had decided to part with its World Champion driver Damon Hill having finally acquired the signature of Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The young German was highly rated back then, and, depending on who you believe, had been courted by Williams for the best part of three years.

With Williams retaining their Renault engine supply and that iconic Rothmans livery, the addition of Frentzen was seen as a move to strengthen the team further, even though the British press might have argued otherwise given the departure of reigning champion Hill.

Despite being somewhat of an unknown at the front end of the grid, Frentzen had impressed during his first few seasons in Formula 1, battling it out in the midfield with Sauber. His pairing with Villeneuve, a former IndyCar champion and runner-up during his rookie F1 season, was one of the most intriguing partnerships on the grid. But more on them later...

Having won the constructors' championships each year between 1992-94 and again in 1996, Williams were again the standout favourites, but behind them, the usual suspects were queuing up to take them on.

Ferrari were beginning their second season of the ‘Schumacher era’, and despite a 20-year absence of any titles, the famous Italian team were now seen as a serious challenger once again.

With McLaren’s decline in the early 90s, Benetton (with Schumacher at the wheel) had risen to become Williams’ main threat, having secured the 1995 constructors’ title and both the 1994 and ‘95 drivers’ titles with Schumacher.

Image: Formula 1

A stuttering start

After a strong pre-season, Villeneuve took pole for the season-opener in Australia by a mindblowing 1.7s over his teammate and a full two seconds clear of Schumacher in the Ferrari. However, both Williams drivers had a nightmarish Sunday. Villeneuve retired in a first-corner accident, while Frentzen, making his Williams debut, stopped with a brake issue three laps from the end.

Despite having by far the quickest car in qualifying - they took pole for six of the opening seven races - Williams’ return on race day was disappointing, and this allowed Schumacher and Ferrari to take charge of a championship they had little right to.

Frustratingly for Villeneuve, his home race in Montreal was the first of the year where Williams had been beaten to pole. With Schumacher qualifying quickest, Villeneuve was forced to settle for second on the grid, but even more frustratingly, another first-lap retirement in the race.

His wins in Brazil, Argentina and Spain aside, Villeneuve retired from all other races up to the French Grand Prix at the end of June. In a display of how hot or cold the Canadian’s performances had been up to that point, he then gifted a podium finish to Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine with a clumsy last-lap spin.

By the midpoint of the season, Schumacher and Ferrari had a hold on both championships, much to many people’s surprise. Williams had been expected to secure both.

Jacques Villeneuve (Williams) at the 1997 Australian Grand Prix

Video: Formula 1

‘Has Blondie Blown It?’

While Williams’ mid-season form was generally more consistent than their win-or-bust performances at the start, the dominance they’d been able to assert on their rivals in previous seasons was nowhere to be seen.

Villeneuve bounced back to take an important win at the team’s home race at Silverstone while Schumacher was forced to retire, but the German clawed back some of the advantage he’d lost with second place at Hockenheim after Villeneuve failed to score.

With Hill having failed to finish only four times in the whole of 1996, Villeneuve’s non-score at the German Grand Prix was his fifth from the opening 10 rounds of 1997.

At the next round in Hungary, and with Villeneuve needing a result, it was Williams’ former driver Damon Hill who came agonisingly close to denying him one. After qualifying his Arrows third, he passed Schumacher and Villeneuve early on and looked on course to take an unlikely win with just a few laps to go.

Fortunately for Williams, a hydraulic leak slowed Hill a few laps from the end, allowing Villeneuve to catch and pass his former teammate to snatch the win and 10 crucial points.

But as he followed that up with a brace of fifth-place finishes in Spa and Monza, the pressure began to build again for Villeneuve as quickly as it had appeared to have subsided. Frentzen was long out of the title fight by this point, but Villeneuve was still trailing Schumacher despite possessing the quicker car.

This prompted British magazine F1 Racing to run the headline 'Has Blondie Blown It?'; a reference to the Canadian's shaky title bid and his new bleached blonde hairstyle.

'Has Blondie Blown It? - The famous F1 Racing magazine cover from September 1997

Image: Formula 1

It turns out, no, he didn’t blow it. But he came close...

Perhaps a stern chat with team bosses Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head did the trick, but whatever it was, Villeneuve’s form picked up in the season’s latter stages.

Back-to-back wins at the Austrian and Luxembourg Grands Prix saw Villeneuve turn a 10-point deficit into a nine-point lead. Schumacher, on the other hand, could only manage sixth in the first of those and a DNF in the latter.

Suddenly, the drivers’ title was back on, and with a comfortable lead in the constructors’ championship, the double title win Williams had targeted was now in sight.

But like any great title battle, there was a twist. Well, two actually. Two massive ones.

The first came in Suzuka, Japan. Villeneuve started the penultimate race of the season on pole, but there was a shadow hanging over his participation even before lights out. The stewards had found Villeneuve guilty of ignoring yellow flags during practice, and their punishment was to send him to the back of the grid.

Coming at such a crucial stage of the season, Williams naturally appealed the decision, and the FIA granted Villeneuve permission to start from pole. But it didn’t matter, Ferrari played the race superbly, and even Eddie Irvine was given his moment to shine.

As a former Japanese F3000 racer Irvine knew Suzuka better than most drivers on the grid, and Ferrari put that knowledge to good use. By passing his teammate early on, Irvine set about hassling Villeuenve and once caught, it didn't take long for him to pass. With Villeneuve driving a cautious race, Irvine disappeared into the distance. By lap 25, the pit stops had shaken out with Irvine in the lead ahead of Schumacher, a position he dutifully conceded to his teammate, before slowing his pace to hamper Villeneuve's attempt to catch the lead Ferrari.

Schumacher won the race, but a pit stop issue dropped Villeneuve out of the podium places and back to fifth. But worse was still to come. The Canadian was later stripped of his fifth place and the crucial two championship points that came with it.

It meant that Schumacher held a one-point lead heading into the season finale, and in his sights was a first Ferrari world title since 1979.

Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) collides with Jacques Villeneuve (Williams) at the 1997 European Grand Prix

Video: Formula 1

Controversy and collusion

The 1997 season played out over 17 rounds across five continents, but ultimately the most important result was decided in a matter of seconds. A questionable moment of ill judgement that shaped the narrative of Michael Schumacher’s early years in the sport, and allowed Villeneuve to deliver Williams the title win his early potential had promised.

With Schumacher holding a narrow points advantage, Villeneuve knew he’d need to finish ahead of the German on track at the final race of the season in Spain if he was to become champion.

After starting on pole (bizarrely with an identical time to that of Schumacher and his teammate Frentzen), Villeneuve lost the position at the start but was able to match his rival’s pace and stay close to him as the race entered its latter stages.

And then came the moment. A moment that’s been spoken about and analysed thousands of times since…

On Lap 48 of 69 at the Jerez circuit, Villeneuve closed to under one second of Schumacher and saw his opportunity. He dived to the German’s right approaching the right-hand Dry Sac corner. The movement looked to have been judged perfectly, but Schumacher had other ideas and appeared to make a sharp move to the right, striking the Williams hard on its left-hand sidepod as Villeneuve entered the braking zone.

Whatever Schumacher’s intentions were, it surely was not to end up beached in the gravel, watching on as Villeneuve toured around, inching ever close to the world championship Ferrari had craved so badly.

But that’s what happened, kind of. In the closing laps it became clear that Villeneuve’s Williams was suffering a few technical gremlins as a result of the earlier collision. With McLaren pair Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard closing in quickly, Villeneuve opted not to fight them for position. He took the flag in third, allowing Häkkinen the chance to secure his first career win.

Jacques Villeneuve (Williams) sporting his new bleached blonde hairstyle ahead of the 1997 season

Image: Formula 1

The aftermath

Much of the debate that followed was centred around Schumacher’s conduct and his eventual disqualification from the 1997 championship. So what then of Villeneuve?

His historic championship win - a first-ever for Canada and the last, to this day, for Williams - did not earn him the legendary status he perhaps might have expected.

The general feeling was, and maybe still is today, that Villeneuve was an incredibly quick driver on his day and under the right conditions, but his inconsistent displays throughout the 1997 season placed him under more pressure than was necessary given the machinery at his disposal.

Remarkably, Villeneuve never won another grand prix as Williams slipped off the top after a major rules change the following season before the Canadian embarked on several barren years with the startup American team, BAR.

For Williams, it sadly marked the end of their dominance. Having won 61 grands prix during the ‘90s - more than any other team - they’ve only managed 11 victories in the 25 years since. Losing Adrian Newey part way through the 1997 season was key, but Renault’s decision to downgrade their involvement with the team for 1998, before exiting Formula 1 altogether at the end of 1999 marked the true beginning of Williams’ decline.

Despite their fall from the top, Williams one of the most successful Formula 1 teams of all time, a testament to their dominance throughout the '80s and ‘90s. They ran some of the most iconic, charismatic and brilliantly skilful drivers in their cars, and as they did in 1997, delivered more than their share of memorable moments.

1997 - F1 Drivers’ Championship

Pos Driver Team Wins Points
1 Jacques VILLENEUVE Williams 7 81
2 (DSQ) Michael SCHUMACHER Ferrari 5 78
3 Heinz-Harald FRENTZEN Williams 1 42

1997 - F1 Constructors' Championship

Pos Team Engine Wins Points
1 Williams Renault 8 123
2 Ferrari Ferrari 5 102
3 Benetton Renault 1 67

Interested in joining us for a race with us?
Official Ticket Packages are already on sale for 2023!