Hill emulates late father to lift drivers' title
It was a case of mission accomplished for Damon Hill. For, in 1996, he landed the World Championship that Michael Schumacher had kept out of his grasp in the previous two seasons. He had made the might of Williams pay.
The 1996 season was the one in which Damon Hill was going to put the record straight. With 1994 and 1995 World Champion Michael Schumacher moving to Ferrari, the idea was that there would be no one who could stop the Englishman from emulating his late father, Graham Hill by becoming World Champion.
Four wins from the first five races gave the lie to this as the Williams team flexed its muscles. But then the fates struck and deprived Hill of a clear victory at the Monaco Grand Prix, a race he has desperately wanted to win since he arrived in Formula One. On that strange day, just three cars finished, with Olivier Panis a surprise winner for Ligier.
Then retirement in the Spanish Grand Prix also meant no points for Hill, and a full-house for Schumacher who put on a masterful display in the wet. It should be pointed out, though, that from the very first race in Australia Hill found there was a threat from within, new Williams team-mate and Indycar Champion Jacques Villeneuve having made the most of a comprehensive winter of testing to get to grips with Formula One. The little Canadian even had the temerity to show Hill the way in Melbourne until an oil leak forced him to slow and cede his maiden victory.
Villeneuve had to wait only until the fourth race, the Grand Prix of Europe at the Nurburgring, to hit the big time, winning a great chase to the line ahead of Schumacher.
Victories in Canada and France put Hill back on track. But there was no such luck on home ground at Silverstone where he fell off and Villeneuve won. Hill's world appeared to cave in at the next race, in Hockenheim, when a story broke that he was to lose his ride at Williams to Heinz-Harald Frentzen sending the newspaper hacks into a frenzy. He was able to leave Germany wearing a smile, though, as he picked up a fortunate win when Benetton's Gerhard Berger had his Renault engine blow up with three laps to go, giving Hill a 21 point lead over Villeneuve who was third that day.
This was soon whittled down, however, as Villeneuve won in Hungary by a short head from Hill, then reduced Hill's advantage to 13 at the Belgian Grand Prix as he was placed second behind Schumacher with Hill only fifth after a serious mix-up over when to come in for tyres.
A few days later, Frank Williams announced that Frentzen would be replacing Hill. Even if Hill landed the world title, he would be looking elsewhere for his employment for 1997. And all the top drives were now filled.
When Hill crashed out of the lead in Italy, matters looked serious. But Villeneuve also failed to score, so Hill was in a position to wrap it all up in Portugal, and he led, bar pitstops, until lap 48 of the 70-lap race distance.
But then Villeneuve motored past him after a fabulous drive that saw him pass Schumacher around the outside of the fearsome last corner, and this took the title race down to the wire at the final round in Japan, albeit with Hill needing just one point to clinch the coveted prize.
Hill and British racing fans will all remember the outcome of that one as Damon stamped his authority on proceedings at Suzuka and led all the way to sign out in style with a win. However, he had already become the first ever second-generation World Champion as Villeneuve had lost a wheel and crashed out 15 laps from the finish. For Hill, this was a life's goal reached at last. For Villeneuve, it was just the beginning.
Villeneuve was a revelation to many in 1996, his four wins not only impressing those who watched them, but also raising the stock of Indycar drivers which had taken a battering when Michael Andretti drove for McLaren in 1993 and was not a factor. Villeneuve's racer's instinct is not displayed in the flamboyant style of his late father Gilles, but is effective all the same, and his ability to attack in traffic is not far short of Schumacher's.
Many saw 1996 as his dress rehearsal and the feeling was no-one would prevent him from landing the big one in 1997. Beyond this golden duo, Schumacher stood supreme whenever he could coerce his wayward Ferrari to behave. And, mid-season, this was not often at all, with both he and team-mate Eddie Irvine failing to go very far at all in the consecutive Canadian, French and British Grands Prix. He won, though, in Spain, Belgium and Italy, with his drive in torrential rain in the first of these the most impressive of the season, but his home win at Monza being the one closest to the heart of the tifosi.
Trouble was, having started the season with a low-nose format and then changed mid-season to a high-nose format, the team was always playing catch-up. And, if there was development work to be done, Schumacher did it. Frustrated by a lack of track time, Irvine's third place in the opening round was his best finish. Berger and Jean Alesi deserved to win races for Benetton, but were ever deprived.
Berger revealed that he had been suffering from a virus early in the year, and his improved form from the summer on proved his return to health. Alesi was almost always on the pace, but remained prone to mad moves that would send boss Flavio Briatore into a rage, such as when he crashed on the opening lap of the Japanese Grand Prix to help Ferrari steal second place in the Constructors' Cup from Benetton.
Mercedes had high hopes of finding grand prix glory for the first time since 1955 with McLaren, but while Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard gave their all and made progress, they were still not quite there yet. Jordan moved up a position on its 1995 ranking to be fifth overall, swapping places with Ligier, and rewarded its drivers Rubens Barrichello and Martin Brundle by firing them. So you could see where Eddie Jordan put the blame for the team continuing winless.
Ligier, on the other hand, did win. But, the freak win at Monaco aside, Panis scored just twice more, and Pedro Diniz got just two sixth places. Frentzen remained Sauber's blue-eyed boy, but Johnny Herbert pushed him hard in the second half of the year, albeit only for the minor places.
Tyrrell, Footwork and Minardi continued to field two cars apiece and pray for the odd point. But their seasons were more about survival than success. Survive they did, which is more than the Italian Forti team which was pitched into oblivion by a financial crisis mid-season, leaving Formula One with just 20 cars.
Reproduced from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Formula One published by Carlton Books