The Callahan Report: Villeneuve Deserves The Title "Champion"
26 October 1997
Jacques Villeneuve, 1997 F1 World Driving Champion
Jacques Villeneuve raced his way into the history books today. The Williams Renault driver won the Formula One World Driving Championship by virtue of his third place finish in the European Grand Prix at Jerez, Spain. He became the first North American to win the Championship since Mario Andretti accomplished the feat in 1978.
Villeneuve has made a name for himself on and off the track. His racing talents, as well as his "speak my mind" arrogance, have been well documented. Even F1 officials have had clashes with the boisterous Canadian over F1 rule changes for 1998. It was a different Jacques Villeneuve in the cockpit today. It was a mature and compassionate Jacques Villeneuve.
A little more than two years ago, Jacques Villeneuve had the Indianapolis 500 "given" to him. Villeneuve was running second to Scott Goodyear in the 1995 Indy 500 when a late race yellow slowed the field. When the field came back to the green flag with a few laps remaining in the race, Goodyear jumped too early and passed the pace car. Villeneuve commented after that race about Goodyear's misfortune. "I was laughing inside my helmet" Villeneuve said.
Villeneuve came dangerously close to learning what it feels like to be laughed at because of mistakes. During the F1 race weekend at Japan two weeks ago, Villeneuve ignored a yellow flag during a practice session. He was told by F1 that he would be disqualified and not allowed to race in Japan. The Williams team appealed the ruling. Villeneuve was allowed to race and left Japan as the F1 point leader. The rules makers then told the Williams Team that they were still reviewing the Japan incident. They said that Villeneuve could lose the points he won in Japan plus he could be disqualified from the final race at Spain if the appeal was not withdrawn. The Williams team withdrew the appeal and lost the points from the Japan race. The decision gave Michael Schumacher the F1 points lead.
Schumacher came into the European Grand Prix leading the F1 championship by only one point over Villeneuve. All Schumacher needed to do was finish ahead of the Canadian to take the title.
Schumacher led much of the race in Spain. He pulled out a 5-second lead over Villeneuve in the early going. Schumacher had a clear road ahead while Villeneuve was struggling with traffic. It looked as though Schumacher was on his way to his third F1 World Driving Championship. The "laughing" Villeneuve did in 1995 at Indy was about to come back to haunt him. It appeared his mistake at Japan was going to cost him his first F1 title.
Things changed quickly on lap 48 of the 69 lap race. Schumacher and Villeneuve had made their last pit stops. The two were separated by 2.5 seconds on the track. Suddenly, Villeneuve began to close quickly on Schumacher's Ferrari. Schumacher's tires were simply not working as well as his previous two sets. Villeneuve charged along side Schumacher in one of the tight 90 degree corners known as Dry Sack. Knowing he was beat, Schumacher came down on Villeneuve. The two cars touched. When the dust settled, Schumacher found himself stuck in a gravel trap. Villeneuve was the new leader of the race. All he needed to do was finish sixth or better to clinch the championship.
Villeneuve showed maturity and even compassion in the remaining laps of the race. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard were closing quickly on Villeneuve. On the last lap, Villeneuve pulled over and gave the lead to Hakkinen who was long overdue for his first F1 victory. The move also allowed Coulthard, Hakkinen's teammate, to pass Villeneuve. The young Canadian crossed the finish line in third place in his championship clinching run.
Villeneuve showed maturity and class in the closing laps of the European Grand Prix. He has always been a tough competitor and one of the world's greatest racing talents. Today he showed the whole package. He showed racing talent, smartness, and compassion. Villeneuve has earned the title "World Driving Champion."
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