An infamous Michael Schumacher moment got him in trouble with the FIA, and almost with the police…
While beloved off-track, there’s no denying that Michael Schumacher was the epitome of ruthlessness on-track. He courted numerous controversies over his long driving career, due to how far the German driver was willing to push the limits.
One of the limits he pushed landed him in big, big trouble at the end of 1997 – enough to get him a major punishment from the FIA, and even had the police poring over his behaviour.
Michael Schumacher targets Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 season finale in Jerez
While modern viewers might view the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as the most major controversy to ever happen in a title showdown, Schumacher’s 1997 showdown with Jacques Villeneuve makes it pale into insignificance.
Context is necessary for understanding what actions Schumacher took on that day. In 1994, facing off against Damon Hill in Adelaide, Schumacher made a costly error while leading and damaged his Benetton.
Knowing the title was slipping through his fingers, Schumacher looked in his mirrors and saw Hill diving up the inside to overtake him and take the glory away. With Hill unaware Schumacher’s car was damaged, he made the move – only for Schumacher to make the desperate call to move across and make contact with the Williams.
The resulting clash took both out and gave Schumacher his maiden title.
Having got away with it in ’94, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he tried it again in 1997 when the circumstances presented themselves. With 22 laps to go in the European Grand Prix, Villeneuve launched his attack and dived up the inside of Schumacher’s Ferrari – only for Schumacher to turn in on him and try the same trick again.
However, as Martin Brundle said: “You hit him in the wrong place Michael, my friend” – Schumacher merely bounced off the side of the Williams and got stuck in the gravel. Villeneuve went on to finish the race in third place and won the title.
To Schumacher’s chagrin, the situation only escalated from there. With FIA President Max Mosley having promised a stern outcome for anyone who tried to influence the outcome of the title showdown, Schumacher was summoned before an FIA disciplinary meeting and was later disqualified from the 1997 F1 World Championship.
This meant that, while he retained his race wins, results, points, and statistics, he lost his second place in the Drivers’ Championship. Ferrari was also allowed to keep second place, with the entrant not being investigated for their responsibility for Schumacher’s actions. The FIA decree on the situation was that Schumacher’s actions “were deliberate but not premeditated”.
With the dust starting to settle, it looked as though the situation had been dealt with sufficiently and the FIA’s punishment would be the peak of Schumacher’s troubles.
But, on January 6th 1998, prosecutors in Germany landed the bombshell that they were exploring the possibility of whether or not a criminal case should be taken against Schumacher.
Astonishingly, Schumacher’s clash with Villeneuve was examined based on the possible charges including the likes of coercion and even attempted murder.
The state prosecutor’s office in Cologne, headed up by Hans Bernhard Jansen of the capital crimes department, explained: “We have received a written complaint from a German citizen in Frankfurt asking the state prosecution to check whether Schumacher’s action was punishable.
“A decision will be taken very soon.”
As a German citizen, despite living abroad and the offence taking place in Spain, Schumacher could have had charges brought against him in his home country and, under German law, prosecutors are obliged to investigate complaints from the public.
However, within just a few days, that furore also ended – the prosecutors could find no evidence that Schumacher’s on-track behaviour had broken any laws.
“An investigation into Schumacher’s behaviour has not revealed that any criminal act was committed,” Jansen told Reuters, confirming no charges would be taken against Schumacher.
Schumacher himself would accept the blame for the incident, admitting to a misjudgement in the heat of the moment: “I am human like everyone else and unfortunately I made a mistake. I don’t make many but I did this time.”
Michael Schumacher ‘ought to face charges for such a grave deed’
Aside from the shock of losing the title fight in such fashion, and worrying about the punishments meted out by the FIA, Schumacher also had to deal with huge media backlash.
In Italy, where Schumacher had yet to win over the hearts of the tifosi as he would so convincingly do over later years, Le Repubblica said “seeing a world title vanish after waiting 18 years is sad enough. But to see it go up in smoke with the move from Michael Schumacher is unfortunately much worse. It’s shameful.”
l’Unita said that Schumacher deserved to be sacked for bringing Italian sport into disrepute and even that “Schumacher ought to face charges in a Spanish court for the grave deed he committed.”
Even in Germany, his home media turned on him. The Frankfurter Allgemeine called him a “kamikaze without honour” and Bild said “he played for high stakes and lost everything – the World Championship and his reputation for fair play. There is no doubt that he wanted to take out Villeneuve.”
At that time, Schumacher’s reputation lay in tatters and his first Ferrari title challenge had evaporated in the blink of that misjudged call. How different might his career have progressed from there had Ferrari turned on him, or if the prosecutors had decided to push ahead with a case?
Of course, just a few short months later, Schumacher had won over all the naysayers once again as he mounted another fervent title challenge against Mika Hakkinen and McLaren even if it was to be another two seasons until he finally got that elusive Ferrari title to return the championship trophy to Maranello.