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With Michael Schumacher seduced by the prospect of returning Ferrari to World Championship success (and a reputed $25m annual salary), Williams began 1996 as overwhelming favourites for the title. Damon Hill emerged from two years in the German’s shadow to win six times and clinch the championship some 28 years after his father Graham’s second title. Even so, Hill would be dropped from the 1997 Williams line-up.
For this season Hill was joined at Williams by another son with a famous racing name. Jacques Villeneuve arrived as reigning Champ Car Champion and Indianapolis 500 winner and immediately impressed. He qualified for his debut in Australia on pole position and would have won but for falling oil pressure. He later withstood Schumacher’s challenge at the Nurburgring to win on only his fourth GP start. Another three victories maintained Villeneuve’s challenge until the very last race.
Schumacher finished third in the championship in his first season at Ferrari. He scored the first of three wins after a wet-weather performance in Spain that ranked among the greatest ever. He also scored victories at Monza and Belgium but poor reliability and an uncharacteristic mistake at Monaco prevented a sustained challenge.
Benetton not only suffered from the loss of Schumacher but also the reliability that had helped secure the title a year earlier. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger arrived from Ferrari: Alesi would have won in Monaco but for suspension failure and a blown engine three laps from the finish at Hockenheim denied Berger a certain win.
Although McLaren would also endure a year without victory, the team was boosted by the remarkable return of Mika Hakkinen after his life-threatening injuries at the final race of 1995. His drive to third at Monza after being delayed by a broken front wing was the highlight of a promising season. David Coulthard led at Imola after a demon start and finished second at Monaco when he could have won. Here Olivier Panis profited from the misfortunes of others, and with some opportune passing, scored Ligier’s first victory in 15 years.
The most memorable moments in a poor season for Jordan were Martin Brundle’s huge accident in the opening laps in Melbourne and Rubens Barrichello qualifying on the front row for his home race three weeks later. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was in the spotlight after he was named Hill’s replacement at Williams, but his final year with Sauber had been a disappointment.
Entry into Formula 1 was now restricted to 12 team franchises although all 12 were not filled for the whole season until 2010.