The F1 fraternity went to Jerez on tenterhooks. The championship had been hugely competitive. Renault-powered Williams and Jacques Villeneuve had started the season strongly with a string of pole positions, but Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard had all taken points on race day. A strong run of finishes and one win from Villeneuve’s team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen had also put him in a strong position and when the circus arrived in Spain, Villeneuve and Schumacher had a shot at the title.
In the Renault camp, securing the title was important – it would be the sixth consecutive constructors’ title for the French manufacturer. At the time, it was to be the last as Renault had decided to withdraw from the sport at the end of the year. It had returned to F1 in 1989 and in less than 10 years had dominated the sport.
Former managing director, Jean-François Caubet, was at Jerez at the time. ‘We came back to the sport in 1989. Renault had decided on an aggressive communications strategy as it became an international company. We needed to reinforce our image, explore new terrain, and three major partnerships were confirmed. The first was with EuroDisney, the second with the Winter Olympics and then in Formula 1. There was lots of pressure to succeed in F1, and Patrick Faure decided on a big partnership with Williams.
‘From the start, the quality and scope of the Williams relationship on a technical and human level was extraordinary. The partnership was really defined by the quality of the relationship. Bernard Dudot, Jean-Jacques His and Patrick Faure put together innovative technology to compete against the likes of Ferrari, Honda, Ford…and there was a big co-operation on every level.
‘I particularly remember three strong moments. In 1993 with Prost winning the championship, then of course Senna’s accident in 1994. We really had to consider long and hard whether we could stay in the sport. it was a very hard time. Then, the third, was the 1997 race in Jerez.
‘We went there having won everything – around 75% of the races had been won by a Renault engine between 1995 and 1997 and we’d had five consecutive titles. In the end, Louis Schweitzer and Patrick Faure said we needed to stop F1 as we had nothing left to prove. Jerez was our last race. We had asked Bernie to have the last race in Europe for a large TV audience, and we wanted to win and leave in front. We had a huge party on the Saturday night with all the drivers and paddock to celebrate the end of the era, but it was the race that really counted.
‘We had arrived in Jerez with Michael Schumacher in front and Jacques [Villeneuve] needed to win, or finish ahead of him to take the championship. The field was close though, as Schumacher, Coulthard, Frentzen, Jacques…they had all won races. In the race I remember Michael went out in the lead, but some 20 laps before the end Jacques came in for a tyre change. He was much quicker than Michael and closed the gap, but he needed to overtake to get the title. After a second stop he was closer again, and going into a corner he tried a move. Schumacher went into the side of him – we couldn’t believe it in the garage. We were folded over in two, thinking it was over.
‘Jacques continued but there was then a worry with his car. It was too tense for words, and he got overtaken by Coulthard and then Hakkinen. He needed to be third at least to get the title, so we couldn’t watch. He got there in the end ; a massive relief but also a wonderful end to the season and, at the time, our F1 involvement. We’d achieved what we needed and went out on a high. But in the plane on the way back to Paris, Schweitzer turned to Faure and said… ‘so, when are we coming back to F1 then… ?