With the Formula One world still buzzing from Ferrari’s return to form and Sebastian Vettel’s first triumph for the Scuderia, we take a look back at his mentor’s first win for the team, 19 years ago at the very track F1 will visit this weekend.
The year was 1996 and newly crowned double World Champion Michael Schumacher had just left defending constructor’s champions Benetton after four hugely successful seasons to join the struggling titan of the sport: Ferrari. With him came a top notch technical team led by Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. Along with designer John Barnard and his latest creation the F310, they began the immense task of turning Ferrari around.
Schumacher had enjoyed a strong start to the season, netting podiums at Interlagos, Imola and the Nurburgring, but 3 retirements left him a massive 27 points behind Williams’ Damon Hill in the championship standings. Schumacher had to make a move or the championship would soon slip away from him.
He qualified third on the grid, some 9/10ths of a second behind pole sitter Hill. The heaven’s opened just in time for the race and the treacherous conditions put four cars out of the race on the first lap. Hill spun multiple times and fell back to eighth before ultimately crashing out on lap 12. Schumacher also had a rough start falling back to 6th before regaining his bearings and charging to one of his greatest victories. Schumacher then began to pick off the leaders, first Berger, then Alesi and finally the second Williams of Jacques Villeneuve on lap 12.
It wasn’t a race, it was a display of brilliance. – Sir Stirling Moss
The following 53 laps were a masterclass in wet weather driving, Schumacher lapping up to 3 seconds per lap quicker than the rest of the field, solidifying himself as the top driver in Formula One and more than justifying his nickname of Regenmeister, the Rain Master. Schumacher lapped most of the field which was whittled down to only 6 by the time the checkered flag fell. Schumacher beat second place Alesi by over 45 seconds! Most importantly he cut Hill’s championship lead from 27 to 17 points. Michael stunned the establishment on that rainy day in Spain and those who had previously doubted the wisdom of his Ferrari move, got their first glimpse of the domination that was to come.