For many the 1996 season was one utterly dominated by British driver Damon Hill, who finally silenced the opposition and stormed to his one and only World Championship title with Williams which included eight superlative victories. However, one victory from another driver literally wowed the Formula 1 fraternity at the Spanish Grand Prix.
In almost undriveable conditions [which saw Damon Hill spin into retirement] reigning double-World Champion Michael Schumacher stormed to his first ever victory for the Scuderia in what would later become an almost unbeatable partnership. Despite qualifying 3rd for the race behind the ever-dominant Williams duo of Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, the German ace was simply unbeatable in the treacherous conditions.
Heading into the seventh round of the 1996 season saw Damon Hill sat upon the top of the Drivers’ Championship with 43 points over team-mate Jacques Villeneuve. The Briton had already won four races earlier in the year, including a hat-trick at the opening three at Australia, Brazil and Argentina. However, the sport had recently been treated to a topsy-turvy affair last time out at the Monaco Grand Prix around the streets of Monte-Carlo. As the rain fell, only three cars finished on the lead lap with Ligier’s Olivier Panis eventually winning the race.
After a dry qualifying session for the Spanish Grand Prix which saw Damon Hill secure pole by +0.434 seconds over Jacques Villeneuve, heavy rain was falling as the race-day dawned around Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya. This instantly saw Williams’s advantage wash away, with the Grove-based outfit simply unstoppable in dry weather conditions. Initially it was thought that history would be made and the race would become the first to be started under the safety car, however the 20-car grid [the Forti duo of Andrea Montermini and Luca Badoer failed to qualify] took to the grid for a normal start.
As the formation lap began, the Tyrrell of Mika Salo stalled on the grid forcing the Finn to start the race from the pit-lane instead of 12th. As the five red lights went out, utter mayhem was unleashed as Damon Hill dropped through the order to 3rd as Jacques Villeneuve stormed into the lead with the Benetton of Jean Alesi 2nd. Michael Schumacher also suffered a dreadful start, dropping from 3rd to 6th and behind his team-mate of Eddie Irvine. Further down the order carnage ensued as the Minardi of Pedro Lamy and McLaren of David Coulthard collided, with the second Minardi of Giancarlo Fisichella running straight on at Turn 1 and into retirement.
However, the safety car was not called upon as the rookie of Jacques Villeneuve continued to assert his authority at the sharp end of the proceedings. The Footwork of Ricardo Rosset was also a casualty after the opening lap, as the Brazilian driver spun out of the race. After storming to a memorable maiden victory last time out, Olivier Panis was forced into a frustrating retirement after the opening lap due to damaged sustained on his Ligier machine. As Jacques Villeneuve continued to lead at the front ahead of Jean Alesi and team-mate Damon Hill, mayhem continued to reign down upon proceedings as the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine spun into retirement from 5th.
This allowed Michael Schumacher to rise through the order to 5th, as many drivers struggled in the worsening weather conditions including the Sauber of Johnny Herbert who spun from 7th but managed to rejoin the track. On Lap 3, Jacques Villeneuve set the fastest lap of the race, however Jean Alesi was not letting the Canadian out of his sights as he fought for the lead. After qualifying on pole position, Damon Hill’s race went from bad to worse in the opening stages of the race as he ran wide and onto the grass. This saw him drop to 5th behind Gerhard Berger and Michael Schumacher.
As Damon Hill recovered from his minor error, Jean Alesi produced the fastest lap of the race in his quest to catch Jacques Villeneuve for the lead. However, a lap later saw the reigning World Champion of Michael Schumacher set the fastest lap of the race as he came alive behind the wheel of the Ferrari. The German quickly disposed of the Benetton of Gerhard Berger and began to catch the leading duo, as the Jordan of Martin Brundle spun and rejoined. Michael Schumacher continued to light-up the timing screens during the next lap, whereas Damon Hill’s torrid race continued with another spin which saw him drop further down the order to 8th behind the Footwork of Jos Verstappen.
Further up the order, Michael Schumacher stormed up the inside of Jean Alesi for 2nd and immediately began to catch Jacques Villeneuve for the lead. Ukyo Katayama became the next retirement on Lap 10 as the Japanese driver suffered with an electrical issue on his Yamaha-powered Tyrrell. On Lap 12, Damon Hill’s race eventually came to a miserable and premature conclusion as he spun into the wall on the exit of the final corner. As the marshals retrieved his stricken Williams machine, Michael Schumacher breezed into the lead of the race with a superlative overtaking maneuver on Jacques Villeneuve.
With a clear track in front of him, Michael Schumacher proceeded to open up a considerable gap to Jacques Villeneuve after several mesmerizing laps around four seconds quicker that the Canadian driver. Within two laps, the reigning Champion had opened up a simply awe-inspiring ten second gap to Jacques Villeneuve as he glided across the treacherously wet circuit. Jos Verstappen completed a 360 degree spin further back and managed to continue circulating, as the Dutch driver continued to impress many in the Hart-powered Footwork.
As Michael Schumacher over-shadowed the rest of the field at the front, many drivers continued to struggle in the increasingly wet conditions. The rain had yet to stop, as Pedro Diniz and Mika Salo both suffered separate spins. Mika Salo was eventually disqualified from the race for changing cars after the beginning of the race start procedure. Martin Brundle became the tenth retirement on Lap 18, as the British driver suffered a differential issue on his Jordan.
With a stunning 27 second lead over Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher completed his first of two pit-stops on Lap 24 after beginning to lap the back-markers several laps previous. The German driver managed to retain his lead as he returned to the track, such was his fearsome command over proceedings. Johnny Herbert spun into retirement for Sauber on the exit of Turn 1, bringing the classification down to just nine cars with the majority of the retirees either spinning or crashing out of the race. Jean Alesi became the next driver to complete a scheduled pit stop on Lap 32, with the Frenchman clearly on a one-stop strategy. He rejoined down in 7th, after a minor excursion onto the grass.
A lap later saw Gerhard Berger, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jos Verstappen all pit together. This allowed the Jordan of Rubens Barrichello to rise through the order to 3rd behind Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. Eventually Jacques Villeneuve also pitted from 2nd, which saw Rubens Barrichello rise once again up into 2nd position. Upon exiting the pit-lane, Villenueve was overtaken by the Benetton of Jean Alesi which meant the Frenchman was in 2nd position once eventually Barrichello pitted several laps later. Whilst Rubens Barrichello pitted from 2nd on Lap 42, Michael Schumacher pitted for his second and final stop from the lead.
Upon rejoining the circuit, Rubens Barrichello battled side-by-side with the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve for 3rd, a battle which the Canadian ace eventually won into Turn 1. After yet another superb display of driving from Rubens Barrichello, the Brazilian sensation was forced to pit again on Lap 45 with a differential issue similar to that which plagued team-mate Martin Brundle. Although his mechanics managed to momentarily rectify to issue, he eventually pulled off of the circuit and into retirement on Lap 53. During this period, both Gerhard Berger and Jos Verstappen spun into retirement also, bringing to amount of drivers left in the race down to only six with Pedro Diniz bringing up the rear for Ligier.
Towards the latter stages of the race, the gap between Jean Alesi and Jacques Villeneuve ebbed and flowed, however the top three remained in the same order as Michael Schumacher crossed the line to secure his 20th race victory and his first for Ferrari. Little did the sporting world know that this was the dawn of a new era in Formula 1, the era of Michael Schumacher, Jean Todt and Ferrari which would go on to dominate the sport almost to its own detriment in future years.
Although Damon Hill eventually proceeded to secure his one and only World Championship title at the end of the 1996 season, there was no denying that the Formula 1 world had witnessed the birth of “Der Regenmeister” at the Spanish Grand Prix in June. After that victory in 1996, Michael Schumacher added a further 71 race victories for Ferrari to his tally already accumulated with Benetton. There is no denying that Michael Schumacher was one of best in the wet, as was so dominantly displayed during that treacherously wet afternoon in June back in 1996.