F1

Classic Spanish Grand Prix (1996): Schumacher’s wet weather wizardy

Michael Schumacher’s achievements are so colossal it is hard to separate the exceptional from the humdrum. RealSport takes a look back at one of his best ever drives.

by Matt Ashman

(Image source: Matthias v.d. Elbe)

Michael Schumacher’s catalogue of wins in the early 2000s – once the Ferrari team under Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne had hit their stride – was so overwhelming that each blends into the next. In those cars, probably any driver of consequence could have achieved what the German did.

But it was not always like that. When Schumacher joined Ferrari in 1996, after two consecutive titles with Benetton, the team were on the rack, and he was brought in to save them.

The driver’s title drought stretched back nearly 20 years, Jody Scheckter’s 1979 triumph, and the victories had been spread thin too – none in 1991, ’92 or ’93, and one each in ’94 and ’95. The under-achievements had often been technical in those years – but not always.

When Schumacher first drove the 1995 Ferrari in winter testing at Estoril, he was nearly two seconds quicker than regular drivers Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. And not all of that could be explained by the more helpful conditions. It was obvious Schumacher could have achieved plenty with that car in 1995.

Unfortunately for him, the 1996 car was a dog. It looked like a bathtub – its high cockpit sides an overly literal interpretation of new safety rules – and it went like one too, lacking grip, downforce and balance. In it, however, Schumacher underlined his greatness more than he ever did when later afforded unlimited budget and testing, bespoke tyres and ruthless management, in a way which, arguably, no driver had ever enjoyed.

The car should never have won a race – as teammate Eddie Irvine’s performances underlined. But Schumacher, as all great drivers do, transcended its shortcomings.

The first example was in Argentina early in the season, when he somehow manhandled the unwilling machine on to the front row, with a qualifying lap from the gods, all acrobatic reflexes, visibly dancing on the razor’s edge.

But of all the amazing things he achieved that year, one moments stands out – his victory in Spain. It poured down with rain that day. In fact, the conditions were so bad that the race would probably not have gone ahead if it were held today.

In the gloom, Damon Hill – starting on pole in the dominant Williams-Renault – spun twice in the first nine laps. Schumacher had a poor start and dropped back from his third place on the grid. But by Lap 13. he was past Hill’s teammate Jacques Villeneuve and into the lead. From there, he never looked back, regularly lapping five seconds – yes, you read that right – five seconds faster than anyone else.

There were extenuating circumstances, to an extent. Ferrari had gone all in on a wet set-up, while Williams had gambled on it drying later on and hedged their bets. But that on its own could not explain the gulf between Schumacher and the rest.

It was a day when one driver raised himself to a level beyond the reach of his rivals and it was reminiscent of another great performance on the Iberian peninsula in wet conditions 11 years before.

Like Ayrton Senna’s first career win at Portugal in 1985, Schumacher’s maiden Ferrari victory has gone down in the annals as one of the greatest wet weather drives of all time. 

A remarkable performance from one of F1’s greatest ever talents.

If there’s another classic GP you think we’ve missed then please let us know in the comments. 

 

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Matt Ashman

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