Having moved from the Benetton team to Ferrari, Michael Schumacher was not able to be among the F1 Championship title contenders in 1996. But the Ferrari team, which had made a poor showing until then was reestablishing itself gradually. Schumacher had been vying the Championship title in the 1997 season with the Williams team’s ace driver, Jacque Villeneuve. With two rounds left, including the Japanese Grand Prix, 15th round of the Championship, Villeneuve had gained 77 points while Schumacher had 68 points thus far. There was a nine-point difference between the two drivers. As the winner is awarded 10 points for a race win, Villeneuve could take the Championship title at Suzuka by winning even one single point. Villeneuve took pole position for the second year in a row to bring himself a big step closer to the Championship title. On the other hand, Schumacher qualified second. But Villeneuve had to compete alone, since his teammate qualified only in 6th position, while Schumacher’s teammate Eddie Irvine took 3rd place on the starting grid, which allowed the team to adopt strategies involving both of their cars.
Jacque Villeneuve made a good start, as if to balance out the mistake he made at the start of the same race the previous year. Schumacher followed him in second while Irvine lost a position that put him in 4th place, which did not allow him to support Schumacher. But something unbelievable happened before the spectators’ eyes on lap two. After having passed through the ‘S’ curves, Irvine came up on the outside of Mika Hakkinen (McLaren-Mercedes) and overtook him, then he passed Schumacher as well to take second place. The strategy that the two Ferrari drivers had hoped to carry out had been successful. They worked well together with miraculous timing in which Schumacher checked Hakkinen in order to let Irvine pass through. Thus, Irvine kept his momentum to take the lead on lap three. Villeneuve who had dropped to second place changed his strategy to hold Schumacher off but lost a position again after making his pit stop. Eddie Irvine let Schumacher pass when the German driver climbed to second place and then Irvine took on the role of holding Villeneuve off.
This caused Villeneuve to lose his rhythm and be overtaken by Hakkinen and his teammate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, to lose two positions. This deft team play performed by Schumacher and Irvine was a great success. It could only have been achieved by two drivers with supreme driving skills and mutual trust, and it is still talked about today. In the end, Schumacher was the first across the finish line, holding off Frentzen who was closing in from behind after having overtaken Irvine. On the other hand, Villeneuve ended the day in only 5th place. Moreover the stewards judged him to be disqualified. Thus, the Championship point standings were changed. Schumacher went to the last round of the Championship with a one point lead over Villeneuve.
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