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A review of the year

DAMON HILL was expected to win the 1996 World Championship - and he did. From the start of the season it was very clear that the Williams-Renault FW18 was the quickest car in Formula 1 and as Benetton - the only other team using Renault V10 engines - seemed to have gone off the technical rails after the departure of Michael Schumacher, it was left to Williams to dominate, winning 12 of the 16 races, finishing 1-2 in the Drivers' Championship and completely dominating the Constructors' title.

And all this was achieved despite the fact that the team went through the disruptive process of moving factories from Didcot to Grove. All in all, it was a remarkable achievement and an indication that Williams continues to do it right - while everyone else struggles to keep up. There are signs, however, that the great Williams engineering team of the early 1990s is now starting to break up with Adrian Newey en route to McLaren and his aerodynamicist Egbhal Hamidy now employed at Stewart Grand Prix.

Damon Hill has been an important part of the Williams-Renault team since he became the Williams test driver in January 1991. For two years he worked without recognition testing for Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, and then in 1993 he graduated into the racing team. Three years - and 21 Grand Prix victories later - Damon has won the World Championship and has been dumped. Some people do not understand why it is that Frank Williams can have done such a thing but it is not hard to explain. Williams is a team in which pragmatism rules. Damon has done a good job in 1996 - but he did not do very well in 1995. Probably Frank Williams decided in the autumn of 1995 that he was going to change drivers when Hill's contract ended. He probably made some form of a commitment to Heinz-Harald Frentzen. For some reason just before the Australian GP in 1995 Damon became a different driver. He won the next four races. He was a different man. Perhaps Williams might have been inclined to keep him but, for whatever reason, Frank and Damon's negotiator did not hit it off. Heinz-Harald was a cheaper - and potentially faster - option. Williams was always in the driving seat in negotiations because his team produces winning machinery, year in, year out. Any of the top F1 drivers could win in a Williams.

Without a Williams in 1996 one was not going to win much. The only opportunities came when the Williams team screwed up or when circumstances contrived to place Hill and Villeneuve at a disadvantage. This happened on only four occasions: three times Michael Schumacher won for Ferrari and once Olivier Panis took a totally unexpected victory for Ligier.

Hill won eight times and he would have won at Monaco as well had his Renault engine not failed. He was beaten outright by Villeneuve only once - in Portugal. His other defeats by Villeneuve came because Damon made bad starts. The only real blot on the record was in Barcelona, where he made a right royal mess of the race. Otherwise he had a fine season and thoroughly deserved to win the title. The nicest thing about Damon was that even when things were not going well he remained a gentleman. After his brilliant victory at Suzuka - with his Williams career over - he could have poured scorn on Williams for firing him, but instead he thanked the team for his years of success. It was nice to see that such behavior can still be found today. Damon leaves Williams in the knowledge that he will be remembered as a gentleman - and while this may not mean anything to some of the folk in F1, it means a lot to him.

Young Jacques Villeneuve made a good impression in his first season of F1 but he did not beat Hill on a regular basis - as David Coulthard was doing in his latter days at Williams in 1995. Jacques was generally on the pace but had a particularly disappointing time in Monaco. Surrounded by hopeless hype after his pole position in Melbourne, Jacques struggled to live up to the instant myth which was created around him. The high point of his season was his brilliant drive in Portugal - although his race in France was very good, too, given that he had demolished the car and battered himself about pretty badly in Saturday qualifying.

All in all, it was a season of which Jacques can be proud - but, in a world of absolutes, it could have been better. Most of the other F1 drivers felt that given a Williams they could have done as good a job or better. The fact is that Jacques was in the right car at the right time - so he was doing it right and they were doing it wrong...

Michael Schumacher's move to Ferrari was a classic example of a driver selling out his chances for a pot of gold. Had he stayed at Benetton I have no doubt that Schumacher would have won more races in 1996. He might even have been able to challenge for the championship. But Ferrari offered him a truckload of gold bars and Michael made lots of good excuses to himself about why it would be a good move to go to Ferrari. If he and Jean Todt can turn Ferrari into a Championship-winning combination that decision will be vindicated. No driver - not even the great Alain Prost - has won a World title for Ferrari in the modern F1 era.

There is no question that Schumacher is the best driver in F1 at the moment. His absolute self-belief, commitment and confidence has put him on a different plane to all his rivals. His three victories in 1996 were all evidence of a total commitment to winning and brought him third place in the Drivers' Championship. In Spain he took a risk and ran with full wet settings when all his rivals went with wet/dry settings. As the weather stayed wet he won by a mile; in Spa he cleverly played with Villeneuve in the early laps, forcing the Canadian into a mistake which meant that Michael was with him up to the pit stops. He was perfectly positioned to take advantage of a pit-radio screw-up by the Williams team and once ahead he could not be caught. In Monza he survived on a day when many of the top F1 drivers made costly mistakes.

There are signs that the Ferrari package - which has cost hundreds of millions of dollars to put together - may finally begin to bear fruit in 1997. And yet, at the same time, there are going to changes to the technical team which might lead the team back into the normal Ferrari chaos. So far, Jean Todt and his boss Luca di Montezemolo have refused to be swayed by the pressures in Italy. This is the only way to make Ferrari successful.

Alongside Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine was always going to have trouble. He gave everyone a hint of his talent in Australia where he out qualified Michael and finished on the podium, but after that he struggled. Eddie was specifically chosen by Jean Todt because he seemed to have the mental strength to put up with the pressure of being Schumacher's team-mate. He did not get a lot of testing mileage and he had far too many mechanical failures (six). In such circumstances the best that Eddie could hope to do was to grab points when he was in the position to do so. Consequently, the mistakes he made in Monza (when he hit a tire wall while on his way to third place) and Spain (where he spun out) both deprived him of points which might easily have bumped him up to seventh in the Drivers' Championship. Instead he finished 10th.

Schumacher's late-season run of results ensured that his old team Benetton was bounced down to third place in the Constructors' Championship. This was pretty disastrous for the team which won the title in 1995. At the end of the year it was no real surprise that both Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne decided that they had enough and moved elsewhere, although the harsh reality is that they had failed to produce a car to get even close to the Williams - despite using the same engines.

The engineers might argue that they were handicapped because they do not have a windtunnel to match the one used by Williams, and that this is down to budget and organization, which is Flavio Briatore's responsibility. Briatore seemed to spend more time involved in F1 politicking and buying and selling other F1 teams than in running Benetton - the team he does not own.

The Benetton drivers - both new to the team - had a hard time settling in. Things would certainly have been easier with a good car. Jean Alesi, as expected, had a difficult time relating to engineers used to dealing with the clinical and precise Michael Schumacher. He had a few of his famous temper tantrums which the Benetton boys did not appreciate. On one occasion Jean was actually locked in a team truck into which he had stormed cussing and squalling. Jean's temperamental behavior and unpredictability is such a shame because the man is a great racing driver when his head is in gear. He finished fourth in the World Championship but should have been third.

Gerhard Berger had a thoroughly miserable season with far too many mechanical failures. The frustration seemed to get to him because at the end of the season he took to running into other cars, which is not what one would expect from F1's senior citizen.

The problems at Benetton were not dissimilar to those of McLaren and no-one in the team seemed to know what to do about it. Or if they did - and given the number of talented engineers involved one must assume that someone in the organization knew what was going wrong - the message was not getting through to the right people. The car was not good and it never looked like winning a race. It qualified well but usually dropped back as the race progressed. There did not seem to be a great deal wrong with the Mercedes-Benz V10 engine - which was good enough to interest someone in breaking into the McLaren garage in Buenos Aires and taking a good look inside the engine. McLaren boss Ron Dennis spent the whole season saying that the chassis was not the problem. Marlboro lost faith in the team and packed its bags after 23 years. Dennis tried to play this down by announcing a new deal with West but there can be no doubting the fact that this was a disaster for the team. Mercedes wants results in 1997 and one can only wonder what will happen if the team does not win.

It will not be for the lack of good drivers. Mika Hakkinen started the year looking like a haunted man after his near fatal crash in Adelaide in 1995. In the early races he was quick but did not look as though he wanted to be, and then gradually he began to show little flashes of his old self. He drove a superb race in Italy to recover from an early pit stop to claim third place. Two weeks later he made a completely crazy move on his team mate David Coulthard in Portugal and put them both out of the race. Mika has been with McLaren for four seasons and needs to start winning. If it doesn't happen in 1997 he should move elsewhere...

David Coulthard went to McLaren having felt uncomfortable with the Williams way of managing drivers. It looked as though he would fit in much better at McLaren but he didn't seem very comfortable there either. He proved to be as quick - or quicker - than Hakkinen on occasion and scored the team's best result of the year (second in Monaco) but he seemed to spend a fair bit of time wondering why he had left Williams. He will stay at McLaren next year, but if the team doesn't start winning he will be probably be off in 1998.

The Jordan team had a most disappointing season, collecting only 22 points in the 16 races. The Jordan-Peugeots were normally reliable but were not quick, and neither Rubens Barrichello nor Martin Brundle seemed to know what to do about it. There did not seem to be very much wrong with the Peugeot engine - it was perhaps a little peaky but otherwise it was right up there - but the 196 chassis was obviously not easy. It had looked to be very good in pre-season testing and ran well in Brazil but then seemed to fade backwards. Some of this was due to internal stresses and strains within the team. Gary Anderson had too much to do as the team's technical chief - and things were not helped when engineer Tom Holloway had a heart attack. Anderson was unwilling to stop working and take a rest but he was finally forced to do so by Eddie Jordan. When Gary returned from vacation the team had been reshuffled somewhat. The new chassis should be better - as Anderson is a fine designer.

After a strong showing in Brazil, Barrichello seemed to lose heart as the season went on and was clearly quite relieved to be leaving the team. He will be much more motivated with the new Stewart operation and perhaps we will see some of the old Barrichello fire and talent which was so plain to see in 1993.

Martin Brundle did his usual trick of starting off badly (his accident in Melbourne was the most spectacular accident of the season) and getting better as the season went on.

Whatever the case, Jordan never looked like winning a race in 1996 which was a setback for the team. Having said that the year provided the operation with the chance to extend its production capabilities and to acquire a windtunnel of its own. This will make the team stronger in the long term but Jordan needs to think a little more in the short-term for 1997 because if there is no success it is unlikely that Peugeot will continue with them in 1998 - and without Peugeot engines, Jordan will have trouble convincing Benson & Hedges to keep pouring money into the operation.

If there were internal stresses and strains at Jordan in 1996, the Ligier team suffered major upheaval. The team started the year with a major cutback of staff because there was not sufficient money to pay for everything the team wanted to do. Tom Walkinshaw was clearly in charge and expecting to take over the team completely at some point in the mid-season. In Australia, however, he suddenly realized that for whatever reason team owner Flavio Briatore was not going to hand over the team as planned. Tom lost his patience, announced he was pulling out of the team at the end of the year and then, after meetings with Briatore, decided it was better to go sooner rather than later. He took with him many of the key members of the Ligier staff, not to mention sponsorship from Power Horse.

Briatore appointed a group of Frenchmen to look after the team and circumstances contrived to enable Olivier Panis to win the Monaco GP. This is not to detract from Panis's brilliance that day - it was an inspired drive. The French and Briatore, of course, were happy to take credit for the victory, although if anyone deserved applause it was the departed Mr Walkinshaw. After Monaco the team stumbled backwards down the grid. There was clearly not enough money to do the job properly. This was frustrating for the engineers and drivers. Panis never excelled in qualifying - whether it was him or the car is difficult to tell but he cannot have had that many off days - but he was always a force to be reckoned with in races. He would fly through the midfield but then time after time he came up against the mobile chicanes of McLaren and Jordan, and while obviously faster was not able to pass.

Pedro Diniz did a lot better than anyone would have suspected and managed to score two points: one in Spain and the other at Monza. On both occasions there was a high attrition rate in the F1 field, but the fact that Diniz was still there at the end of the race was testimony to a modicum of ability. Tom Walkinshaw quickly signed Pedro - and his $10m of Parmalat money - for the Arrows team in 1997.

The Red Bull Sauber team knew before the season began that the Ford Motor Company was not going to be giving it free engines in 1997 and so the motivation for the partners to be successful was somewhat dimmed. It did not help that the new Ford V10 engine had a serious horsepower-deficiency in the mid-ranges which made life very frustrating for Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Johnny Herbert. The Sauber C15 chassis showed well on circuits where horsepower was not the most important factor and in general Frentzen and Herbert were able to make the most of it. The biggest black mark for Frentzen came in Monaco when he could have won the race if he had not attempted a silly overtaking maneuver on Eddie Irvine's chugging Ferrari. Frentzen is lightning fast, but he still has the tendency to leave his brain in the paddock when he straps himself into a car. It will be interesting to see how he develops with the Williams team to mold him. The team quickly fell in love with Herbert and he was signed up for another two years.

Although 11 points - seven of them at Monaco - may not seem like a great result it was a good solid year from Sauber. Most importantly, however, the team successfully cemented its relationship with Petronas, despite the fact that every marketing man in F1 was trying to convince the Malaysian government that Sauber was a dead-end. Time and money will prove whether the Malaysians were right...

The Tyrrell team was the big disappointment of the year after some sensational testing times during the winter. Mika Salo looked like a challenger for podiums in the early races, but then Yamaha engines started to blow up and this went on and on and on. Tyrrell was obviously short of cash and so its testing was minimal and the cars dropped back down the grids. The obvious potential of the Yamaha engine was spotted by Tom Walkinshaw and he quickly snapped up the deal for 1997 when Tyrrell made it clear that it would prefer a more reliable option. I would hazard a guess that the engine will be winning before long.

Salo somehow managed to retain his sanity throughout all of this and did his reputation no harm at all. Clearly Jean Todt has a soft spot for Mika so it will be worth watching out for him at Ferrari at some point in the future.

Ukyo Katayama failed to impress once again and by the end of the year even the Japanese journalists were suggesting that perhaps it is time that Japan Tobacco puts its money behind another driver rather than continuing to back Ukyo. He moves to Minardi next year - with support from Japan Tobacco...

After splitting with Ligier, Tom Walkinshaw bought a majority shareholding in Arrows and thereafter quickly asserted his control over former owner Jackie Oliver. By the end of the year Tom had stripped and streamlined Arrows and had put together a healthy looking package for 1997, including the World Champion Damon Hill and Bridgestone tires. All the political messing about did not help the 1996 Arrows team at all. With Alan Jenkins gone to Stewart it was left to Frank Dernie to develop the FA17, but for whatever reason the car seemed to go backwards down the grid. Brian Hart did not get the money he needed to develop his V8 engines. Jos Verstappen showed that he was quick but he still had the tendency to go off a little too often. He was then seriously sidetracked by some unwise management - which ended up with Walkinshaw telling him to take a hike. Jos saved his future in F1 only by signing a long-term Tyrrell deal - which may be the making of him...

Riccardo Rosset was never given a decent chance to show his potential. He was given almost no testing early in the year and so was very short of mileage and confidence. Things improved as the season went on but by then the car was not at all competitive. He deserved a better chance than he got.

Minardi started the year still suffering from the decision by Mugen Honda at the end of 1994 to throw away a contract it had signed with Minardi and supply Ligier instead. The downhill slide from that point led to the team nominating Japanese pay-driver Taki Inoue. His money failed to appear and Minardi decided to run talented youngsters Giancarlo Fisichella and Tarso Marques alongside Pedro Lamy. There was no real chance that any of the drivers would score points and at mid-season Minardi had to ditch the youngsters and rely on money from journeyman Giovanni Lavaggi. Inexorably the decline led Giancarlo Minardi to the strange decision to ally with the man who had convinced Mugen to ignore its Minardi contract back in 1994 - Flavio Briatore.

Perhaps the recent takeover of the team will lead to better things, but from Giancarlo's point of view at least his staff are still employed and the team is still in business. Whether he remains a part of it will be interesting to see. It will be a sad sign of the times if the Briatores of the F1 world force out Minardi, the last of the great racing fan team owners.

The only other team to compete in 1996 was Forti which should never have started the year. The team was left in the lurch when Tom Walkinshaw convinced Pedro Diniz to take his Parmalat money to Ligier. Guido Forti tried to battle on but then found himself involved - against his will - in a strange relationship with a curious company called Shannon. The whole business was a disaster and Forti stopped appearing in the mid-season. This left Andrea Montermini and Luca Badoer out of work. Andrea somehow managed to retain his sense of humor and enthusiasm but Badoer just looked bemused - as he has done for most of his F1 career.

The 1996 Formula 1 season will not be remembered as one of the great World Championships, but the fight between the two Williams men and Schumacher's occasional brilliance was just what was wanted with the advent of more advanced TV coverage of the sport. New TV technology will greatly increase F1's income in the next few years - through satellite pay-to-view TV and "virtual advertising" - and this caused considerable political problems over the details of the 1997-2001 Concorde Agreement. The Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell teams refused to sign any new deal - arguing that they wanted a bigger slice of the TV income - and in the end the FIA took the radical - but perfectly legal - step of organizing a Concorde Agreement without the three teams being involved. This provided a dramatic tactical victory for the FIA with Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell ending up without a political voice in the sport and receiving a lot less money than the teams which agreed to sign the new Concorde Agreement.

This will inevitably mean that there will be a redistribution of wealth among the teams, which will enable others to catch up. In the long term this will probably lead to more competition for Williams.

The increased commercial income in 1996 added pressure for the sport to produce a better show for TV audiences and this led the FIA to spend time and money researching ways in which the cars can be altered to make overtaking - and therefore better racing - easier in the future.

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Stories: DECEMBER 30, 1996
A REVIEW OF THE YEAR