When Lewis Hamilton backed Nico Rosberg into the pack during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix it wasn’t the first time someone had tried that tactic in Formula One. Jacques Villeneuve did exactly the same thing at Suzuka in 1997 but on that occasion Ferrari developed a plan to reclaim the upper hand.
Jacques Villeneuve started the 1997 Japanese Grand Prix from pole position knowing he would almost certainly be disqualified from the race. It was a highly unusual situation. Villeneuve came into the weekend carrying a suspended race ban for repeatedly ignoring yellow flags, so when he ignored them AGAIN during practice he was promptly banned from the Grand Prix. Williams (Villeneuve’s team) appealed the stewards’ decision and although it was never going to be successful it was a suitable delaying tactic because it meant Jacques could at least start the race.
Any points that Villeneuve scored would be taken away from him when the Williams appeal was rejected/withdrawn so, with nothing to race for, Jacques took aim at Michael Schumacher instead. The two were locked in a tight championship battle and Japan was the penultimate race of the season.
Villeneuve held the lead from pole position and, with Schumacher right behind in second place, Jacques promptly started pushing Michael’s Ferrari back into the field. Villeneuve was hoping that other drivers would attack Michael and steal points away from him so the opening lap was slow enough for the field to cross the line nose-to-tail as if it had been run behind the Safety Car.
Before Schumacher lost any positions, Ferrari started implementing a brilliant plan to neutralise Villeneuve’s tactics.
Schumacher purposely baulked Mika Hakkinen in 3rd place through the sweeping esses to allow Eddie Irvine in the other Ferrari to overtake them both. Irvine then went after Villeneuve like a battering ram and quickly forced himself into the lead. Villeneuve continued delaying Schumacher, so whilst Irvine disappeared into the distance, Ferrari moved onto the next part of their plan.
Schumacher was short-fuelled at the end of his first stint so he could jump Villeneuve in the pitstops. Although that strategy would’ve usually left Michael a sitting duck at the second round of stops, Irvine came back into play. Ferrari told their ‘number two’ driver to slow down, hand first place to Schumacher, and hold up Villeneuve so Michael could build the buffer he would require later in the race. Irvine played his role to perfection and gave Villeneuve a dose of his own medicine. Jacques made an early stop himself to avoid being help up for too long, but by that stage Ferrari’s drivers had cleverly worked together to seal a rather brilliant tactical victory.
The race is summarised in this great highlights video.