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The 1996 F1 Season
Ferrari’s misery during the 1996 season continued with retirement and did-not-starts for Michael and Eddie Irvine. Despite the single win in the Spanish GP, there was nothing much the car could offer Michael to take the fight to the Williams. Before the Belgium GP, Michael had just one win, and three podium finishes out of twelve races. The defending world champ was far from defending his title.
By the time the teams reached Belgium, Michael had no chance of catching up with Damon Hill in the points table. The championship fight was now between the Williams drivers: Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. Damon was leading the table, Jacques second, Jean Alesi third, and Michael a distant fourth.
The remainder of the 1996 season at the Ferrari camp was aimed at salvaging some pride while getting the strategy right for the next season. But then with Michael, world championship or otherwise, winning mattered. He could be expected to go full out for every race, the Belgian GP being no different.
Could Michael win the Belgian GP?
Let’s find out.
The 1996 Belgian GP Qualifying
Even before the qualifying on the weekend, Michael Schumacher met with an unusual accident in Friday free practice. Michael exited a turn, lost control and crashed heavily into the tire barrier. Thankfully, he was well and walked away from the crash unhurt. Here is a look at the crash:
The impact did look heavy; only the 1999 British GP crash looked anywhere near as bad. But Michael was fine, and soon all eyes moved to the qualifying runs. The Williams once again dominated the qualifying session. The Ferrari of Michael Schumacher was far from troubling the leaders, while Eddie Irvine was further down, qualifying behind the Benettons and the McLarens.
Villeneuve was on pole, followed by Hill about 0.4 seconds adrift. Michael’s Ferrari was more than a second down followed by David Coulthard in the McLarens and Gerhard Berger in the Benetton. Mika Hakkinen completed the top six.
Ferrari’s challenges were at two levels. One, to find the pace to match the Williams, and two, even if they figured the pace, to ensure that the car was able to finish. Reliability was one of the biggest problems for Ferrari with thirteen retirements between Eddie and Michael in just twelve races. So, between qualifying and race-day, the team had a lot to achieve.
Could Ferrari bring out a competitive enough car for Michael? And could Michael win?
Let’s find out.
The 1996 Belgian GP – Race Day
The race started with Villeneuve getting away cleanly followed by Michael Schumacher. Damon Hill lost places to Schumacher and then to Coulthard. At the front, Michael was piling pressure on Villeneuve to pass him. The sheer pace of the car made everyone wonder if Michael was on a three-stop strategy and hence a lesser fuel load.
Take a look at the race summary:
In hindsight, the race appeared to be Williams’, and they quite magnanimously squandered it away. Michael was not the one who would let an opportunity pass by, and as expected, he grabbed them with both hands. The situations which led to Michael leading and then winning were the two rounds of pitstops.
At the thirteenth lap, while the safety car was deployed, Ferrari got it right by getting Schumacher in for the stop. On the other hand, the Williams garage was one of total chaos with Villeneuve missing the pits at the scheduled call-in and Hill losing positions on a wrong call-in. As such, Michael took the lead from Villeneuve while Hill lost positions once the safety car exited.
Now, the story did not end there. At the second stop, Michael pitted first and was twenty seconds behind Villeneuve. The Williams team did an excellent job of getting Villeneuve out fast, but at the pit exit, Schumacher stormed past Villeneuve to take the lead. The overtake at the pit exit can be seen at the 3:05 minute mark in the video. After that, Villeneuve tried to stay close for a couple of laps, but then Michael started to pull away.
The race ended with Michael winning by 5.2 seconds from Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen in third place. Damon Hill kept the championship hopes alive by finishing the race in fifth place.
Damon was now at 81 points to Villeneuve’s 68 points. The gap was down to thirteen points, and it could have been less if Michael had not won. In a sense, Hill would have been happy to see Michael win!
Back to the Pits
Schumacher eventually was promoted to third place on the points table going past Jean Alesi. The German, though, was nowhere close to catching any of the Williams cars. The competition was between Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, and of course, that hardly meant that Schumacher would be sitting idle and watching the Williams’ contest.
Schumacher would be eyeing for more wins, and that’s how we like him!
© 2020 S K