Friday, 23 September 2011

1996 Spanish Grand Prix - Circuit de Catalunya

June 2, 1996

A casual observer may not have enjoyed the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix - a lone red Ferrari putting an ever increasing distance between itself and its pursuers. But to the purest it was spellbinding.

What made it all the more impressive was the fact that at the start of the 1996 season Michael Schumacher appeared to have done the unthinkable by leaving Benetton in the wake of back-to-back world titles. He transferred to Ferrari - a proud name, but in many ways a bare shell of a team. 

He'd been encouraged when he tested the 1995 car, but was hugely disappointed when he'd subsequently tried the new F310, Ferrari's first V-10 powered Formula One car. He knew immediately that he was in for a tough season, and he was right. The Williams-Renault dominated the season with a far superior car. In Spain, however, Ferrari had an unquantifiable edge ... Schumacher. 

Still, Schumacher finished the warm-up 0.86 seconds shy of polesitter Damon Hill (Williams-Renault), almost the same margin he'd been adrift in Saturday's dry qualifying session where he claimed third on the starting grid. Then he took a calculated gamble. He told the team he wanted a full wet set-up with light tanks. Two stops. 

1996 Spanish GP - Schumacher's bold gamble was pivotal.

Normally in the wet, the strategy is to go to the grid with a heavy fuel load for maximum strategic flexibility. A wet set-up means the car is softened right off on the springs and bars, making its response to the driver's actions more gentle - reducing the risk of a small mistake turing into a terminal, high-speed incident. More wing is cranked on to produce more downforce int he corners, assisting the tyres to grip and disperse more water. The problem, of course, is that if the track dries, the driver will lose out hand over fist to a car that started on a stiffer set-up. Furthermore, the tyres will start to wear horribly quickly.

But start on compromise settings and you obviously don't go as well in the wet. So it is a grey art: if you anticipate a drying track, you run as hard (dry) a set-up as the driver can cope with in the rain.

Hill seemed to hesitate when the lights went out, trailing Villeneuve and Alesi into the first turn, but his getaway was scintillating compared with Schumacher's. The Ferrari appeared almost to stall, before stumbling away. "My start was a disaster," Michael said. "I went for the clutch, and there was nothing. I nearly stalled, then tried it again. Fortunately, no one went into the back of me." By the time he got things sorted out he was ninth going into the Elf right-hander. He quickly recovered however, and had passed three cars before the end of the first lap.

1996 Spanish GP - After a poor start Schumacher storms to the front.

Thereafter, his progress was mesmeric. Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) spun out of fifth and when Damon Hill (Williams-Renault) ran on to the grass a couple of laps later, Schumacher was up to fourth. On lap five he passed Gerhard BErger (Benetton-Renault), lapped two seconds quicker than anyone else and closed to within six seconds of the lead. Next time around he was 3.7 seconds faster than race leader Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) and second-place man Jean Alesi (Benetton-Renault).

The German was using totally different lines to everyone else, sweeping wide to avoid the more frequently used, rubber permeated areas of the track and thus maximizing what precious little grip was available. On lap 9 Schumacher swept around the outside of the tightening fourth gear Renault right-hander and did the same out of Repsol. He sliced his way past Alesi, into second, and on lap 12 he overtook Villeneuve, too, at precisely the same place. On each occasion, he left his braking late, poked the nose of the Ferrari inside, leaving neither Jean nor Jacques an opportunity to resist. The moves were exquisitely judged and by the end of lap 12, he was three seconds clear.

Just two laps later Schumacher posted the fastest lap of the race, some four seconds quicker than Villeneuve and Alesi. By lap 24, Schumacher was in for his first stop. In the twelve laps he led the race he opened a 40 second gap. Before he stopped again, on lap 42, the margin was widened further to 90 seconds, despite a sick sounding engine.

1996 Spanish GP - Schumacher effortlessly passes Villeneuve for the lead.
"It started on lap 33," Michael said, "and I thought I was running on eight or nine cylinders. I guessed it was probably caused by the water, but I was worried. Normally I'm flat in sixth on the straight, but suddenly I wasn't even hitting the limiter in fifth."

In actual fact his engine was on nine cylinders for a time, but this cured itself and the main problem was a broken exhaust. Nevertheless, through the most appalling wet conditions Schumacher scored his first success for the Prancing Horse. A truly brilliant one, too. He all but drowned Ferrari's sporting director Jean Todt on Moet on the podium.

"I wouldn't have bet a penny on myself winning this race," he said after the race. "In Brazil the car didn't handle and it hadn't felt good in the wet warm-up at Monaco. I've no explaination other than that it is very sensitive to the circuit. Here, we hadn't been competitive in the dry, but suddenly, in the wet warm-up, it felt great. We made a few more changes afterwards and it was perfect."

1996 Spanish GP - Schumacher and Ferrari would soon dominate F1.
It was, in truth, one of the great wet weather drives in history. The set-up and strategy may have been perfect, but this was as good a drive as Michael Schumacher had ever delivered. And that's saying something. The highest praise came from the opposition.

Renault's Bernard Dudot said with a smile "Today, Schumacher was brilliant and nobody could do anything to stop him. We had no engine problems!" And Williams senior operations engineer James Robinson added: "I don't think the Ferrari was that brilliant. It looked like it was on ice to me. That guy is something else. It was pretty amazing." 

Amazing was about the only way you could describe it.

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