Round seven of the 1996 Formula 1 season was held at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain, and saw one of the finest displays of wet weather control by race winner Michael Schumacher that saw the legendary German driver take his first victory after his move to Ferrari.
The Williams-Renault combination once again locked out the front row of the grid in qualifying, with Damon Hill taking pole position from team-mate Jacques Villeneuve, with Schumacher almost a second adrift in third.
Jean Alesi was the leading Benetton-Renault driver in qualifying, finishing fourth ahead of team-mate Gerhard Berger, while the second Ferrari of Eddie Irvine qualified in sixth.
Rubens Barrichello was seventh on the grid for Jordan-Peugeot ahead of Olivier Panis, who had won the previous race in Monaco two weeks previously for Ligier-Mugen-Honda. Johnny Herbert was ninth on the grid for Sauber-Ford with Mika Hakkinen completing the top ten for McLaren-Mercedes.
Neither Forti-Ford driver managed to qualify within the 107% rule; Luca Badoer missed out by 0.319s but Andrea Montermini was more than a second away, meaning only twenty cars took to the grid for Sunday’s race.
Race day saw the weather change dramatically, with the circuit wet and rain falling heavily, and it was Villeneuve who got the best start to lead into the first corner ahead of Alesi, while pole sitter Hill slipped to third ahead of Berger and Barrichello, while Schumacher was down in seventh behind Irvine.
Irvine was an early casualty from the race, when he spun off and got beached, while on lap four Hill had a moment and ran off track, losing positions to Berger and Schumacher.
Schumacher began his charge, setting lap times more than two seconds faster than those ahead of him, passing Berger with ease before closing down the gap to Alesi in second.
On lap seven, having caught up the Benetton, Schumacher made his move into turn five, getting inside Alesi and moving into second place, and within striking distance of Villeneuve in the lead.
Hill had another spin out of fifth on lap eight, falling down outside the points, and ended his race for good with a third spin exiting the final corner on lap eleven, hitting the barrier.
Schumacher repeated his move that he pulled on Alesi on Villeneuve on lap eleven to take the lead, and then ran away into the distance, with the Ferrari driver over three seconds faster on the first lap in the lead than anyone else. The next lap he was already six seconds clear of Villeneuve.
Schumacher was three-to-four seconds a lap second faster than anybody else for a substantial time, pulling away dramatically from the chasing pack, and was untouchable in a race that turned into one of attrition.
By lap nineteen, half of the field had retired, with along with Hill and Irvine, Olivier Panis, Giancarlo Fisichella, Pedro Lamy, Ricardo Rosset and David Coulthard had retired in incidents, while Ukyo Katayama and Martin Brundle were both retirements due to mechanical issues. Mika Salo had also been forced out of the race after being disqualified for switching to the spare car too late at the start.
By the end, Schumacher had a forty-five second advantage over Alesi, who managed to get ahead of Villeneuve into second place. Heinz-Harald Frentzen had a quiet race to finish fourth for Sauber-Ford ahead of Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren-Mercedes, while Pedro Diniz finished sixth for Ligier-Mugen-Honda, securing his first career Formula 1 point.
No other drivers finished the race, with Jos Verstappen spinning out of fifth place in his Footwork-Hart with eighteen laps remaining, while both Rubens Barrichello and Gerhard Berger also retired while running inside the top five, the Brazilian with a mechanical issue while the Austrian spun out.
But no one could deny this was Schumacher’s day, and it was performances like this that earned him the nickname of the ‘Regenmeister’ – the Rainmaster.
1996 Spanish Grand Prix Race Result (Top 10)
|4||15||Heinz-Harald Frentzen||GER||Sauber-Ford||+1 Lap|
|5||7||Mika Hakkinen||FIN||McLaren-Mercedes||+1 Lap|
|6||10||Pedro Diniz||BRZ||Ligier-Mugen-Honda||+2 Laps|
|RET||17||Jos Verstappen||NED||Footwork-Hart||47 Laps|
|RET||11||Rubens Barrichello||BRZ||Jordan-Peugeot||45 Laps|
|RET||4||Gerhard Berger||AUT||Benetton-Renault||44 Laps|
|RET||14||Johnny Herbert||GBR||Sauber-Ford||20 Laps|