All journalists present in Jerez de la Frontera on October 26 will never forget this extraordinary weekend. I'm going to come back to it tomorrow.
But if October 26, 1997 has remained in the memories of fans and the annals of F1, it is because the road to the final confrontation had been extraordinarily bumpy. The turnovers and the blows of brilliance had succeeded one another at a hellish pace.
I had covered the season with one or two colleagues. And throughout this year like no other, the war between Ferrari and Williams, and especially between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, caused tension that exploded in an anthology overtaking at Jerez.
But it all started at Interlagos. For me anyway.
São Paulo on the left
It was my first trip to South America. I was passionate about the Grand Prix above all, but I was also eager to see if it was true that the water in the toilets turned in the opposite direction when you flushed the toilet.
At the airport, Torto told me to drive 50 miles south towards Murumbi.
“As long as the town is on your left, you're fine.”
In those days, there was no GPS. Torto's explanations were my rescue.
But Torto hadn't told me that the city of 20 million people stretched over 53 kilometres at the time.
I was starting to panic when finally I saw a “Murumbi” poster. That was where I would find the hotel. Where I would leave for the circuit nestled just behind indescribable favelas. You crossed (it's still the same) storerooms covered with sheet metal Pepsi advertising panels, without running water or electricity, and you arrived at the billionaires of F1. In the enclosure of luxury and the superfluous.
The first time, it took a while to adjust.
VILLENEUVE IN HER PANTIES
Jacques had won in Brazil. I had gone to relax in Buzios, the Saint-Tropez of Brazil that Brigitte Bardot had made famous. The owner of the hotel was called Régine and we had spent an idyllic week there. Meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve had taken refuge in Bahia.
We met in Argentina in Buenos Aires. Villeneuve had won again. But he had brought back a wonderful gift from Bahia.
A severe diarrhea which, during the Grand Prix, had forced him to drive… on the nose! But smells good or stinks, Villeneuve had won and was able to change before the press conference.
At the time, Argentina and Brazil were trying to peg their real and peso to the US dollar. In other words, wine was $6 a bottle and a taxi ride was $1.75. Had to work hard to come back with an “honorable” expense account.
After these two victories in South America, we thought that Villeneuve and the Williams were on their way to glory.
How far we were from the checkerboard. And that we were naive.
THE MONTREAL GRAND PRIX
The Montreal Grand Prix was going to be extraordinary. Even if the leaders of the FIA and F1 tried to break the young Quebecer whom they found too big-mouthed.
This Grand Prix even welcomed a sports columnist Bryan Miles who was to end his career as director of the Duty. And then, the dispute was lively between the Canadian government and Bernie Ecclestone. Tobacco was Formula 1's biggest advertising partner. Asia was starting to compete economically with Europe and Canada and didn't give a damn about tobacco. A people who smoke are a people who die young. A people who die young does not cost much in old-age pensions. Bernie had already begun his blackmail.
Villeneuve had not helped dissipate the bad mood. He was right in the wall “Welcome to Quebec ” after the last chicane. Kaput in the second round. And then, Olivier Panis, another driver we loved, had broken both legs in an accident.
A bad Grand Prix… and we were starting to worry.< /p>
The summer had passed a bit messy. Villeneuve is planted in France, but wins in Great Britain. We think that the Williams-Renault will take off. But Ferrari and Schumacher, helped by the abominable Eddie Irvine, do not give an inch.
BULLYING IN HUNGARY
When I get to Budapest in Hungary and that I go by the M7 to Lajos, the printer, to find my room there, I am quite worried.
And I was right to worry. On this dusty ground where the Bridgestones work wonders, Schumacher and Villeneuve on Michelin occupy the first two positions at the start.
The surprise is Damon Hill who caused it. On a mediocre Arrow wearing the number 1 since he is the defending champion, Hill rises to third. And incredibly, overtakes Schumacher in the first laps before doing the same with Villeneuve.
Two laps from the end, Hill is heading for a completely improbable victory, but one that looks like a resurrection. Everyone is pushing for him since Hill has always been kind and gentlemanly.
This is where his transmission breaks. Hill completes with two gears less and Villeneuve overtakes him like a tiger on the grass in front of the press box.
Villeneuve wins and Schumacher finishes fourth.
I left the circuit with Christian Tortora chatting quietly. My texts had been sent to Montreal, Torto had sent his reports to CKAC and we thought that the tomato roast of Téréza, Lajos' wife, would be divine.
A big sedan, with people from Ferrari on board, passed close to us and in a Québécois as pure as threatening, someone of us shouted: “You need to be careful what you say and write. We listen to you, we know everything that is said in Montreal. Pay attention.”
Torto was knocked out. He kept saying, “But that’s bullying. Ferrari has always intimidated everyone. It’s intimidation !!! ”
Much later, the Quebec voice took on a face. He was a very young Gino Rosato, a good friend of Patrice Brisebois to whom he spoke about races every week…
Gino became one of the bosses at Ferrari then at Lotus…
Gino became a very dear friend who gave me the only interview given by Lawrence Stroll in Monaco during the first season of Lance Stroll…
Remained the hold- up from Japan and after, the O.K Corral in Jerez…