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The 1996 Season

The 1996 Season

My personal reminisces of bygone seasons has reached 1996 and one of total domination by the Williams-Renault team who won 12 of the 16 rounds to become double Drivers and Constructors Champions.

They had recruited reigning CART Champion and Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve (son of, as opposed to brother of, Gilles) to partner Damon Hill and he was up to speed right from the start.

Williams’s dominance could also partly be put down to a lack genuine opposition. Michael Schumacher had departed Benetton for Ferrari along with many of the team’s key personnel and as a consequence Benetton took no victories whilst Schumacher won 3 for his new team. The season’s only intrigue was which of the Williams pair would become World Champion as there did not seem to be any team orders.

The season’s other winner was Olivier Panis (Ligier) who took an unlikely victory at Monaco in a wet race of attrition that saw only 3 finishers.

My day job was preventing me from getting away to many races so when the New Nürburgring was chosen to hold the European Grand Prix in April I took the opportunity for a quick overnight race-day visit. I knew from previous Formula 2 races that the Eiffel weather could be touch and go in April having experienced near freezing conditions and snow flurries on a couple of occasions but it remained dry with the temperature a balmy 12 degrees.

I was not impressed with my distant view from the general admission area so for the race I found a grassy hill outside of the circuit, still distant but overlooking the first turn. From here I watched Jacques Villeneuve lead the whole race to beat Schumacher by less than a second and win his first Grand Prix. There were plenty of others watching from the same area but I was probably the only one who had actually bought an entrance ticket. I made good use of it, however, after the race to get back into the circuit and wander the pit-lane and listen in on Villeneuve being interviwed for German TV.

It was interesting to note that this sterile circuit, considered such an anathema when first built, was referred to as ‘a proper old school track’ by some current drivers when added to last year’s calendar. An indication of just how much Grand Prix racing has changed.

By Silverstone, Damon Hill had won 6 races to just the one for Villeneuve. As usual I attended all three days roaming general admission and watched the race from the bank inside Abbey Curve which gave a view down to Club Corner and the cars heading straight toward you into the ninety degree left turn.

Villeneuve took his second victory and Damon Hill failed to finish although he still held a healthy Championship lead, 63 points to 48.The only other noteworthy event I can recall from the weekend is that it would be the last appearance of the bankrupt Forti Team, both yellow cars driven by Luca Badoer and Andrea Montermini failing to qualify.

My final Grand Prix of the year was what had become my regular overnight trip to the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. Williams had already clinched the Constructors Championship at the previous race in Hungary. Spa, cashing in on F1’s popularity and soaring attendances had limited general admission tickets (of which I had one) to the Kemmel Straight between the exit of Raidillon and the entrance to les Combs. Anywhere else needed an ‘upgraded general admission’ ticket at an upgraded price. However, somehow I did manage to persude security to permit me access to these ‘special’ areas.

Michael Schumacher took his second win for Ferrari having passed Jacques Villeneuve during a safety car period of pit stops. As we left Spa Damon Hill held a 23 point lead over Villeneuve with 3 races left and 30 ponts up for grabs.

At the final round in Japan Villeneuve could take the Championship if he won and Damon Hill failed to score. But it turned out the other way around, Damon won and Jacques failed to finish. So, with a tally of 8 wins to villeneuve’s 4, and after 2 years of finishing runner-up to Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill became the first son of a World Champion to emulate the feat.