Silverstone 1997: Williams' 100th Grand Prix Victory

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Williams used to be the team to beat in Formula One, and it still was a powerhouse in 1997. Jacques Villeneuve's British Grand Prix that year win marked the teams 100th victory - and not many more would follow.

Five different winners, a World Driver's Championship battle that went down to the wire, a brand-new team owned by the legendary Jackie Stewart, plenty of on-track drama - the 1997 Formula One season is generally remembered as one of the most exciting. In the end, Jacques Villeneuve prevailed and took the title for Williams - and no one would have believed that it would be the final championship for the team to date.

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Michael Schumacher and Ferrari managed to gap Jacques Villeneuve and Williams siginificantly ahead of the 1997 British Grand Prix.

Williams-Renault was a powerhouse in the 1990s, particularly once a certain Adrian Newey joined the Grove-based outfit in 1991. Rising to the top in the early years of the decade, Williams was generally the team to beat, first for Ayrton Senna and McLaren, then for Michael Schumacher with Benetton and Ferrari. Having taken the 1992, 1993 and 1996 titles while being the runner-up in both 1994 and 1995 with Damon Hill, the team looked set to be a dominant force for years to come.

In 1997, the great form of the team continued. Reigning World Champion Hill had famously left for Arrows after his contract not being extended, and Jacques Villeneuve continued the strong pace he showed in his rookie year in 1996 already. Teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen was still a hot prospect at the time, too.


Villeneuve Closes The Gap​

Heading into the British Grand Prix, Villeneuve had won three of the eight races contested thus far, but was trailing Schumacher in the Driver's standings by 14 points. The German had been more consistent, so the advantage was rather big despite the same number of wins. Remember, back then a win was worth ten points, second place equaled six points.

And it looked like this advantage would be extended at Silverstone. Having qualified on Pole Position, Villeneuve suffered a slow pit stop and had to look on as Schumacher pulled out an enormous lead, only to retire with a wheel bearing failure. Mika Häkkinen, who inherited the lead, looked set to win his first Grand Prix - until his Mercedes engine let go, promoting Villeneuve to the top step of the podium, with the Canadian closing the gap to Schumacher to just four points.

Joining the Canadian on the podium would be both Benetton drivers, with Jean Alesi taking second place, and Alexander Wurz finishing third. The young Austrian filled in for an ill Gerhard Berger and had made his debut two races prior in Montreal, retiring both there and in Magny-Cours. The result in his final 1997 start got him the Benetton seat for 1998, as Berger retired after 1997.

Further down the order, Hill finally managed to score his first point with Arrows that season, finishin in sixth position.


100 Down, Many More To Come... Right?​

Silverstone was a fitting stage for Williams' 100th Grand Prix win, the British GP being its home race, of course. Their Grove factory was - and still is - only roughly an hour's drive from the track, so this milestone victory felt like it came on home turf. It would be the final time as of the 2023 British GP that Williams would win at Silverstone.

In fact, not too many more wins would follow this triumph at all. Villeneuve took three more victories in 1997, namely in Hungary, Austria and at the Nürburgring (billed as the Luxembourg Grand Prix). After that, only 11 more wins would follow, all of them between 2001 and 2004 when the teams had its BMW alliance - except for Pastor Maldonado's upset win at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.

Villeneuve would go on to win the World Championship in that Jerez finale that we probably all remember or have heard of, which would turn out to be the final title for the team to date as well. Juan Pablo Montoya came close again in 2003, but ultimately could not keep up with the battle between Schumacher and Kimi Räikkönen until the end.

Interestingly, the 1998 Williams FW20 was the only car of the team to bear the number 1 despite the team winning four Driver's titles in the 1990s alone. 1992 Champion Nigel Mansell famously switched to Newman/Haas Racing in IndyCar, 1993 winner Alain Prost ended his career, and 1996 Champion Hill - as mentioned - did not see his contract extended and took the number to Arrows. Ironically, Hill was the driver to race with number 0 on his car both in 1993 and 1994 at Williams.

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The number 1 on Damon Hill's Arrows certainly was an odd look.

Newey Out, BMW In​

The writing for what turned out to be Williams' slow descent was on the wall at the time already, although most might not have thought so. Newey, the mastermind behind the Williams cars of the 1990s, had left the team before the season even began to sign with McLaren. Internal differences with Frank Williams and Technical Director Patrick Head regarding driver decisions drove Newey away, and his designs brought McLaren back to the very front of the grid in the following years.

Williams, meanwhile, showed immense promise from 2000 onwards when partnering with BMW, particularly with the pairing of Ralf Schumacher and Montoya behind the wheels from 2001 to 2004. The alliance lasted until the end of 2005, when BMW decided to take over the reigns at Sauber, fielding a de-facto works entry.

Had it not been for Maldonado's 2012 victory, the final win for Williams would be Montoya's at the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix. After the infamous walrus nose on the FW26 had been replaced by a more conventional design for the final third of the season, the car began to show its promise more - but it was too little, too late. Somewhat incredibly, Montoya's win will have its 20th anniversary on October 24, 2024. Williams does not appear to be within striking distance of a victory anytime soon in current-day F1.

But no one would have predicted all this in 1997 when Villeneuve scored the team's 100th victory. They probably would have thought that there would be countless more to follow.

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What are your memories of Williams in Formula One in the 1990s? Let us know on Twitter @OverTake_gg or in the comments below!
About author
Yannik Haustein
Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia.

Sim racing editor, streamer and one half of the SimRacing Buddies podcast (warning, German!).

Heel & Toe Gang 4 life :D

Comments

OverTake
Premium
Mmh it would certainly be great to see williams back on top anyway
As much as modern F1 isn't really for me anymore, I would be all over that resurgence. Would be so cool to see one of the last privateers rise to the top again.
 
Without Tyrrell, Ligier, Arrows, Lotus (real), Brabham F1 never has been the same.
 
I'm pretty sure Maldonado didn't win anything in 2021. ;)
Just a minor typo. :)

It's always good to see that Benetton's livery again!
 
OverTake
Premium
Not in F1, anyway - fixed that, thanks for spotting :)

90s Benetton liveries sure were pretty. Most of them, anyway, I think my least favorite would be 1998. 1999 was similar, but better as the blue they used stood out more.
 
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