Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Morgan Holiday, Edited by Tanishka Vashee
Only once in the history of Formula One have multiple drivers set the exact same lap time for a pole position in a qualifying session. Even weirder is the fact that on that occasion, it wasn’t just two but three drivers who set the exact same fastest time. That occasion was Jerez in 1997.
The 1997 season of Formula One was coming to a close, with Jerez set to be the 17th and final round. Williams had clinched the Constructors championship win the previous round, but the driver’s championship standings were still to be decided. Jacques Villeneuve of Williams and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher were in contention for the title. Schumacher was only one point ahead of Villeneuve, and so the two went into the final round with everything to play for.
On the 25th of October, 1997, Qualifying for the European Grand Prix was held, wherein 22 drivers had one hour to set 12 lap times. Their fastest lap time would determine their starting order for the race the following day.
The system used to record the lap times set by the drivers would measure their lap times to one thousandth of a second. 14 minutes into the session Jacques Villeneuve set a fastest lap of 1:21.072. Another 14 minutes later, Schumacher set a lap with the exact same time. Close to the end of the hour, Heinz-Harald Frentzen became the third driver of the session to set a 1:21.072.
As per the regulations in the result of a tie, pole position went to the driver who set the time first. And so they lined up for Sunday’s race: Villeneuve, Schumacher, and Frentzen, leaving Damon Hill, who technically set the second fastest time, to start P4.
Oddly enough, Formula One’s most interesting qualifying session wasn’t even the main talking point of the weekend. In the race both Schumacher and Frentzen got better starts than Villeneuve, leaving him in third place after the first lap. But on lap 48, Villeneuve, back in second place and trying to overtake for the lead, was turned in on by Schumacher deliberately. Unfortunately for Schumacher, he ended up having to retire, while Villeneuve went on to finish third and thus won himself the driver’s championship.
The crash was deemed a racing incident by the stewards at the time, but Schumacher was later disqualified from the 1997 championship as a result. Max Mosley, the FIA’s President at that time, stated that they “concluded that although the actions were deliberate they were not premeditated”. Ferrari and Schumacher took no other fines or penalties for the incident, getting away quite fortunate in the end, as the consequences could have (any perhaps should have) been much worse.
Amidst all this drama, McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen took the race win, his first ever in Formula 1. But even that victory was fraught with controversy as McLaren and Williams were accused of colluding to give Hakkinen the win. Although these accusations were dismissed by the FIA at that time, it came out years later that Ron Dennis and Frank Williams did indeed have an agreement that if Villeneuve was in a position to win the championship, they would concede the win to McLaren.
All in all, Jerez 1997 was a weekend to remember for most Formula 1 fans, although not always because of the unique outcome of qualifying. Certainly if this sort of qualifying session were to happen today, the teams have the telemetry and technology to much more easily tell who deserves pole position. We may never know what the fourth decimal to each driver’s time was at Jerez 1997, and which driver was truly fastest. But whatever the case, it’s still a good story.