I never was a Michael Schumacher fan. And that might be an understatement. But I was (and am) a hardcore F1 fan. I love the sport. Even so much that there was a period of multiple years, in the noughties, where I did not support any of the available drivers and still got up at 5 am to watch the start of the Japanese Grand Prix. This also meant that I never really cared so much about who won the race as to how good was the race. And I was never to shy to admit when I saw something genius, even if it was done by someone I disliked.
Which brings us to the Spanish Grand Prix of 1996.
Sometimes it is forgotten just how bad Ferrari was during the 90s. I mean they won their last title in '79, and the Italian marque was happy if it was able to win once a season. Like it did in both '94 and '95. But in '91,'92 and '93 they didn't even manage one single win. So somehow it might actually be a miracle that Schumacher wanted to go to the Italian team. Being the oldest F1 team might have done the trick...
His first test for the team underlined just how special he was. Because, unlike some, I do believe the driver is a big factor of the performance. Yes, I know Schumacher had the no.1 status at Ferrari etc, but the thing is he earned that. By utterly destroying his team-mates. If you get in the '95 car for a test, and drive 2 sec faster, in you first time out, than both Alesi and Berger could manage in the same car (with a lot more kilometers under their belt), it shows greatness.
But a true sign of greatness is winning in a car that is not capable of winning. Destroying your opponents in a car that should never be able to do so. There are a few examples that come to my mind. All of them outstanding drives that showed why those drivers are the x-factor in the combo of man and machine; Ayrton Senna taking his first win at Estoril '85. Jacky Ickx qualifying third for the German GP in '67, in an F2 car, 21 sec faster than the next F2 car! Yes, twenty-one seconds.(I'll always find a reason to bring Ickx up, haha). At the same track (the Nürburgring) Juan Manuel Fangio had his greatest win in '57, a story which I, perhaps, can write about as a preview for this years German GP. We'll see... Sebastian Vettel taking pole and winning the '08 Italian GP in a Toro Rosso. Jim Clark at the rained out '65 Belgian GP, leading Jackie Stewart (who was no slouch in the wet either) by 1min 20sec. Kimi Räikkönen at the '05 race in Japan going from p17 to win the race. The list goes on...
So what made Schumachers victory so special? Well, first of all because the Ferrari was nowhere near to being a match for the dominant Williams car. Ending up 105 points behind them in the constructors championship is a clear indicator of this. During a time where only the first six places earned points. Second of all it was done in the wet. And the kind of wet race that today wouldn't even be started. Of course you can argue that Ferrari made the gamble on a better rain set-up for the car, and Williams didn't. But only Hill fans use that excuse. Pus it wasn't true.
During qualifying Schumacher got his Ferrari up in third, but nearly a second adrift of Hill in pole position. But with his team-mate, Eddie Irivine, only down in sixth, behind the two Benetton's. When race day came the weather had took a turn for the worst. But, like I always say, that just separates the boys from the men.
By the way, this was the first season the phrase 'Lights off, and away they go!' was used, since the green light procedure had been replaced by the procedure that is still in use today. So:
Lights off, and away they went. Unfortunately for Schumacher not in the way he wanted when he found himself down in seventh, behind Irvine, after a bad start. Jacques Villeneuve was the one leading the pack in to turn 1. At the tail of the pack there had been a start collision, taking out several drivers. David Coulthard, Pedro Lamy and Ricardo Rosset where unable to continue and both Giancarlo Fisichella and Oliver Panis where involved in the massacre too, however, they were able to reach the pits. But the rain would soon begin to make some more victims. The next one? Irv the swerve... Off in to the kitty-litter, and beached. Remember those days when going off track actually punished driver mistakes? I do.
Next up was Damon Hill, also sightseeing the graveltrap with his car, even when he later remarked that he thought to have a good wet weather set-up. Remember how I said the Hill fan excuse would fall apart? Haha. This promoted Schumacher up to fourth and, because he was right on the tail of Berger it meant that he was battling for p3. Some laps later Hill spun his car, losing more places until he spun it again. Only this time trying to take the pit wall with him. Not succeeding in this he abandoned his car, since the wall had won the battle.
At the meantime Schumacher was doing his best Jesus impression by walking on water. Finding a way past Berger, Alesi and Villeneuve in just seven laps time. Once he took over the lead he was finally freed of the spray that had obstructed his view, since the race start. And now he began doing what he was so good at; he put his foot down. Lapping two seconds faster than anybody else that day.
When he dove in and out of the pits at the end of the 24th lap he still had a 25 sec(!) gap, which in itself is already impressive. But since lap 18 his engine had developed a weird noise. This became so bad that by lap 31 he suspected to have one or two faulty cylinders. Reporting a power loss which resulted in him being 10 kph slower on the main straight.
Nevertheless, Schumacher still gained time on everyone. So much that once he rejoined the track, after his second pit stop, he was a full minute clear of the pack. Remember how I said I like people winning in a car that should not be able to? By now you should be convinced that this one most definitely qualifies.
Eventually there would only be six finishers in this Grand Prix. Many caught out by the horrendous weather, but also a lot of mechanical failures. Is it me or did they have more of those back in the day? Even Pedro Diniz finished in the points that day. Slow and steady wins the race, sort of. Hahah
Oh well, let's hope the 2018 Spanish GP will be as exciting as this one was!