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The 1996 F1 Season
Schumacher’s spectacular win in Belgium, despite the marauding Williams on track, increased the expectation of a Ferrari win in Italy. Italy being Ferrari’s home track, a Schumacher win would be especially pleasant.
The last time a Ferrari F1 car won in Italy was way back in 1988 when Gerhard Berger and Alboreto finished one and two respectively, for the team. The 1988 season had similarities to the 1996 season, because back then it was the McLaren of Senna and Prost on a juggernaut while in the current season it was the Williams juggernaut with Hill and Villeneuve dominating the track.
While not many would have remembered the 1988 season’s outcome, the Tifosi would have hoped for a Ferrari win at the home circuit. Good for them as Michael always went for a win and he could very well be looking forward to making it a back-to-back win for Ferrari at Italy.
Could Michael do it?
Let’s find out.
The 1996 Italian GP Qualifying
The Italian GP qualifying was similar to all the qualifying sessions through the season. The Williams team dominated the proceedings with Schumacher once again qualifying third. Damon was on pole while Villeneuve was in P2, about three-tenths of a second behind. Schumacher was five-tenths of a second adrift of Hill.
It was a better performance from the Ferrari camp as they could close the gap to the leaders in the qualifying times. Usually, the P1 Williams on an average ended up being close to a second faster than Michael’s Ferrari. Eddie Irvine in the other Ferrari too did an excellent job qualifying P7 over a second off Hill’s pace.
Michael was in a good position to launch an offensive and hope to win the race. Let’s find out how the race progressed.
The 1996 Italian GP—Race Day
The 1996 Italian GP was famous for two aspects. One was Jean Alesi storming to first place from P6 at the start of the race and second, the piled-up tyres at the two chicanes leading to the parabolica.
Can you beat that? Piled-up tyres and not Hill, Villeneuve, Schumacher, Williams or Ferrari. How strange is that? Well, that’s the fact, and it appeared to be one of the worst decisions of the track managers to have them there in the first place. But let’s start with Jean Alesi.
As the lights went off, the start seemed to be a regular one with the Williams pulling ahead followed by Schumacher. However, as the first turn approached a Benetton appeared out of nowhere and took the lead. That would have been one of the phenomenal starts of Formula 1 which probably Senna, Schumacher, Prost or no other F1 greats of yesteryear could have effected.
It was a shame that Jean did not have a car to defend that position. Hill soon overtook Jean and pulled away. Jean was also one of the few drivers to come out safe from the tyre piles.
That brings us to the second topic - the tyre piles. Usually, chicanes are lined with markers to act as a guide for the cars to know the limit to which they could go over the kerb. These markers are soft and usually drilled into the ground. The markers in Italy were just a pile of tyres with nothing holding them in place. So, every car that touched them led to the tyres falling on track and hitting the other cars behind.
Of the eight cars that made contact with the tyres, five retired, one had to change the nose wing (Mika), one had a suspension issue (Villeneuve), and the other just survived masterfully. Well, the masterful survivor was Michael Schumacher and one of the last ones to hit the tyres.
Schumacher said in the post-race interview that he let go of the steering wheel when his car touchee the tyre pile. That move was to avoid suspension damage because of steering feedback during the tyre touch. Masterful indeed!
Sadly, it was the same tyre pile which also led to Damon Hill retiring from first place allowing Jean Alesi to lead, and eventually, Michael. Once Michael got to the front at the first pitstop, he stayed there until the end.
And thus Michael achieved the dream of a first Ferrari win in Italy after eight years!
Remainder of the 1996 Season
The Italian GP was Schumacher's last win of the 1996 season. Only two races were remaining, Portugal GP and Japanese GP both of which were won by the Williams duo. Michael finished the Portugal GP in third place while the Japanese GP in second place. The results were good enough to take Ferrari to the second spot in the constructors' championship and two points ahead of Benetton, Michael's former team.
The championship title fight went right up to the last race with Villeneuve winning the Portugal GP and closing the points gap to Hill. Hill in second place was just nine points ahead of Villeneuve in the championship.
So, it all boiled down to the Japanese GP. The title decider race got easy for Hill once Villeneuve retired. Of the front runners, only Schumacher was in a contest with Hill. However, Hill managed to pull through and win the Japanese GP.
With that, we had a new world champion. Damon Hill was the 1996 Drivers’ World Champion!
Back to the Pits
Schumacher could manage only three wins in the 1996 season as against his record-equaling nine wins in the 1995 season. It was still a great effort and finish for Ferrari. The Ferrari team won more races in the 1996 season than between 1991 and 1995. Also, Ferrari ended up being the second-placed team in the constructors' championship which was one better than the 1995 finish.
The progress in the Ferrari camp only pointed towards things to come. From the looks of it, there would be more wins and titles with Schumacher at the helm!
The Next Win..
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© 2020 S K