Background and pre-season
The early and mid-1990s saw the Williams F1 team dominate the sport. Although the early death of Ayrton Senna and the rise of the prodigiously talented Michael Schumacher saw them lose two titles to Schumacher and Benetton, few doubted that Williams was the team to be in during the early to mid-1990s. One season that perfectly demonstrated this perception was 1996. Williams drivers finished first and second in the driver's standings, while the team clinched the constructor's championship with four races to spare. Before the season began, Williams was rated as the heavy favourites to win the title.
There were several reasons for this of course. The main was the fact that defending double-world champion Michael Schumacher left Benetton to join Ferrari. Ferrari is probably the greatest name of F1, but the team was going through a really tough period those days. They haven’t won a title in over a decade, and they struggled to match Williams or Benetton during the 1995 season. The team had also decided to scrap their V12 engine in favour of their new V10, so by all means, 1996 promised to be a transitional year for the team from Maranello.
Schumacher was replaced by Jean Alesi, who although was rated as a talented driver, few believed he could match the records of Schumacher.
Williams, on the other hand, retained the services of Damon Hill. Hill challenged Schumacher in both 1994 and 1995, and despite having a horrid second half to 1995, Hill was the safe bet for many. Hill was joined at Williams by the reigning INDYCAR champion Jaques Villeneuve. The Canadian was the son of Ferrari legend Gilles Villeneuve and had the reputation of a hard charger from his days in America.
As the testing season wrapped up, most experts and fans expected Williams to run away with the championship. Eddie Irvine, Schumacher’s teammate at Ferrari, hinted that things may be closer than many expect them to be, but most doubted whether he was right.
The first half of the season
The first race was held in Melbourne Australia. Villeneuve shocked everyone by taking pole position on his debut qualifying session. He was followed by Hill and Irvine, who surprisingly edged his teammate Schumacher for 3rd.
At the first start Villeneuve got away well, but Hill was passed by both Ferraris and dropped back to fourth. Luckily for Hill, an accident forced the race director to throw a red flag which cancelled out his bad start.
Villeneuve aced the start at the second time asking too and led away Hill, Irvine and Schumacher. Irvine quickly let Schumacher by, and the first three dropped Irvine in the first stint of the race. It soon became obvious that Schumacher was able to keep the pace of the Williams duo only because he was on a two-stop strategy, contrary to the one-stop of his opponents.
After both Williamses had done their stops, Hill had passed Villeneuve during the pit stops, but Villeneuve attacked and re-passed Hill on the Englishman's out-lap. Still, Hill kept close and the hard-pressed Villeneuve made an error later. The error caused a fuel leak which forced Villeneuve to slow down and let Hill by.
As Schumacher dropped out with a technical failure, Eddie Irvine was promoted to third.
In the next race in Brazil, Hill blitzed his opponents in the qualifying, finishing nearly a second ahead of everyone. In the wet race, Hill lead away from the field and was followed by Villeneuve, Alesi and Barrichello. Villeneuve and Alesi fought hard, and Alesi forced a mistake from Villeneuve, who crashed into the gravel and retired from the race. Hill cruised away to an easy victory from Alesi and Schumacher, who finished third in the end.
Hill took pole in Argentina also. He lead the field again after the start and was followed by Schumacher and the two Benettons. Despite some initial pressure, Hill scored another easy win. He was followed by Villeneuve and Alesi.
Hill took another dominant pole position in the fourth round too. This time his start let him down badly, and he dropped back. Villeneuve led away from the field and was followed by David Coulthard. During the pit stops a charging Michael Schumacher passed Coulthard and closed up to the gearbox of Villeneuve, but in the end, he was unable to pass the Williams driver, who scored his first F1 victory. Hill had a scrappy race and finished 4th in the end.
Michael Schumacher took the pole position in the next round in San Marino ahead of the two Williams drivers. David Coulthard had another rocket start and led away the field. Hill and Schumacher both passed Coulthard during their pit stops and dropped the Scotsmen. In the end Hill took another confortable race win finishing over 10 seconds ahead of Schumacher. Bennetton men Gerhard Berger finished third, while Villeueve failed to score a point, he was forced to retire with suspension damage due to a collision. Villeunve got unlucky at the start and dropped last with a puncture. He fought back and charged through the field but in the end it was all in vain.
The next round in Monaco saw Schumacher clinch another superb pole position. He was followed in the qualies by Hill and the two Benettons. The race was wet and Hill passed Schumacher at the start. The German crashed out in the first lap for good measure also. Hill looked absolutely dominant and was miles ahead of second-placed men Alesi when his engine blew. Alesi looked similarly comfortable when he was forced to retire with technical problems also. Olivier Panis profited from all the chaos and retirements to score his first victory.
Hill took pole position in the next round ahead of Villeneuve, Schumacher and Alesi. The race was wet again, but this time round Hill, who opted for a dry setup, struggled badly and crashed out. Michael Schumacher was the man of the day, and he obliterated the field to win with over 40 seconds ahead of Alesi and Villeneuve.
Hill took another pole in Canada from Villeneuve and Schumacher. Schumacher had problems at the start and had to start from the back. The two Williamses fought for the win. They were on different strategies, and in the end, Hill edged out Villeneuve to win another race.
The championship reached its halfway point, and Hill was leading with 53 points, followed by Villeneuve with 32 and Schumacher 26.
The second half of the season
Schumacher took pole position in the 9th race of the season, from Hill and Alesi. Villeneuve, who had a crash during the qualifying, finished only 6th. Schumacher had no more luck than in Canada, as his car blew its engine on the formation lap. Left without a rival, Hill cruised to another win. A charging Villeneuve passed Alesi to finish second.
Hill took pole position in Silverstone, England. He was favoured to win his home Grand Prix, but unfortunately for him, his start let him down again, and he dropped down the field. Villeneuve easily won the race from Berger and Mika Hakkinen. An unlucky Hill was forced to retire after a loose wheel nut sent him into a spin.
Hill took pole position again in Germany. Another bad start saw him drop down to 3rd, behind the two Benettons. Hill raced long battle with Berger and Alesi for the win. During the pit stops Hill passed Alesi, but with three laps to go Berger was leading the race from Hill when the Austrians engine blew up and gifted the Williams men the win. Hill won his seventh race of the season, Alesi finished second, while Villeneuve completed the podium.
Schumacher put another superb lap to clinch pole position in Hungary. He was followed by the two Williamses. Hill had another slow start and dropped from 2nd to 4th in the early phases of the race. Villeneuve passed Schumacher in the pits and was cruising to another easy win afterwards. Hill put in a charge to catch up and leapfrog the Ferrari men, but despite catching up to his Canadian teammate, he was unable to pass him. Another 1-2 for Williams won them the Constructor’s title for 1996, with 4 races to spare.
Next time round in Spa Franchorshamp, it was Villeneuve who took pole position from his teammate. He led away the field at the start, but Hill dropped back to 4th behind Schumacher and Coulthard. A huge accident from Jos Verstappen brought out the SC. The better timing of Ferrari saw Schumacher leapfrog Villeneuve, while Hill dropped back to the middle of the pack. Schumacher won the race from Villeneuve and Hakkinen. Hill finished 5th in a recovery drive.
Nex time round in Monza, Italy, Hill edged his teammate for pole position. Both Williamses had horror races, Hill hit a tyre wall in a chicane that sent him into early retirement, while Villeneuve damaged his car earlier in the race and struggled all throughout to finish 7th in the end.
The next time round in Portugal saw Hill taking another pole position from his teammate Villeneuve. A win for Hill would have clinched him the title, while Villeneuve needed a win to keep his hopes alive. Hill got away better and Villeneuve dropped back at the start. Still, in his typical hard-charging way Villeneuve forced his way to second by passing Schumacher and closed up to Hill. Villeneuve was much faster than his teammate in the race, and once he passed Hill in the pits, he left the Englishmen a long way behind.
Villeneuve’s win kept his title chances alive. As the two went to the last round, Hill was leading his teammate by 9 points. Villeneuve needed a win and a Hill retirement to win the title, while Hill only needed to finish 5th to clinch the title.
Villeneuve dominated the qualifying and easily took pole from his teammate. Villeneuve had a slow start and dropped back, while Hill led away from the field. Hill was challenged by Berger, but a reckless move from the Austrian saw him lose his front wing.
Villeneuve charged hard all throughout the race, but he had no luck this time around. A botched pit stop and a slow puncture frustrated his progress, while Hill had a perfect race and won the title in style by winning the Japanese Grand Prix.
In the end, Hill finished the season with 97 points to Villeneuve's 78 and won the title fair and square from his rookie teammate.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler