Schumacher–Hill Contest: 1996 F1 Season
In one of our previous articles, we looked at a new brewing contest between Schumacher and Hill, ever since the 1994 collision in the final race of the season. The battle continued in 1995, where the faster Williams of Hill was being strongly challenged by Michael’s Benneton. However, by the end of the season, the result was the same as in 1994. Schumacher was the world champion for a second year in succession.
The love-hate relationship between the two was supposed to continue into 1996. The known factor was Michael’s ruthlessness, and his determination to win while the unknown factor was the Ferrari cars.
Let’s jump into the 1996 season.
Michael Schumacher–Damon Hill: 1996 Season
The first race of the season started in Australia with Michael’s move to Ferrari while Damon Hill was joined by another great racer, Jacques Villeneuve. The expectation was the continuation of the Schumacher–Hill duel right up to the last race of the 1996 season. However, one thing became amply evident in the first race. And what was that?
Schumacher would be the defending world champion and was definitely a great driver. However, if the car was not reliable, then he couldn’t finish a race, let alone win it. The reliability of the Ferrari was as unpredictable as the rain in London. Here’s the engine blowing up in the French GP in 1996.
That’s just sad. The defending world champion was unable to even complete a formation lap. Well, that’s how unreliable the Ferrari was.
The lack of reliability removed Schumacher from Hill’s radar as a title contender; much to Hill’s delight. But that delight was shortlived as his own teammate, Jacques Villeneuve, was giving him a run for his money.
Take a look at how competitive Villeneuve was.
The contest between the two Williams was seen in the very first race of the season, the Australian GP. Of course, Villeneuve had to later give into team orders and allow Hill to go through.
End of Schumacher Contest for 1996?
The reliability notwithstanding, Schumacher showed why he was one of the greatest in the Spanish GP. The rain paid a visit to the circuit and the rainmaster got on with what he did best—winning. Rain is a great leveller in F1, and when the cars are equal, the great drivers shine through. That’s precisely what happened with Schumacher.
Here’s a snapshot of the Spanish GP.
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The sad part was that the Spanish GP was the seventh race of the season and within that time, Schumacher had retired thrice. Despite that, he equalled Villeneuve in points at the end of the Spanish GP while he was a whisker away from Hill.
You can never rule out Schumacher!
Schumacher–Hill Contest: 1996 Reboot
Though fans would have loved to see a reboot of the contest between Hill and Schumacher, the reliability of the Ferrari came to haunt Schumacher again. After the Spanish GP, Schumacher had to wait for another five races before he could win. And in those five races, he retired thrice.
Once again, the yo-yo season for Schumacher allowed fans to see his magic back at the Belgian GP.
Schumacher won the race fair and square and then went on to win the very next race at the Italian GP. That fired up the championship.
The Last Two Races of 1996 Season
Going to the last two races of the F1 1996 season, Schumacher could only do a third and a second place finish in Portugal and Japan, respectively. That wasn’t enough to topple the Williams from taking first place in both the races; Villeneuve in Portugal and Damon in Japan.
A season snapshot of Ferrari painted an abysmal picture where Schumacher retired six times while Eddie Irvine, the other Ferrari driver, retired ten times. Despite the reliability issues, Schumacher’s three wins ensured that Ferrari ended second in the constructor's championship, pipping his erst-while team Benetton by two points.
Damon Hill: 1996 F1 World Champion At Last
Damon’s long wait for the world championship finally came to an end in Japan in 1996. Interestingly, Damon would leave the Williams team despite being the world champion. Damon's exit was similar to Nigel Mansell’s exit from the same team under the same circumstances in 1992. It was challenging to read Frank William’s mind as a similar scenario had happened with Nelson Piquet, too. Even Alain Prost exited Williams after becoming the world champion in 1993; the only difference was Alain retired voluntarily. Quite a reputation Williams was amassing!
Here was the post-race press conference in Japan, 1996.
Despite moving out of Williams, Damon was happy to have won the championship.
Back to the Garage
Damon’s rivalry with Schumacher remained in 1996 despite the Ferrari being nowhere close to the Williams. The season was made for Williams despite Schumacher’s brilliance in an exceptionally unreliable car. The very fact that Schumacher was able to finish third that season, while his teammate Eddie Irvine finished tenth, is a testament to Schumacher’s contribution to the team.
On hindsight, the Benetton team’s performance nosedived from 1996 while the same started to happen with the Williams. Barring the 1997 season, Williams’ hold on the F1 world tapered down. Ferrari, through the same period, entered a growth trajectory and remained on target to dominate the world.
That said, 1996 belonged to Williams and more importantly, Damon Hill. At last, the man did it!
© 2019 S K