French Grand Prix 1996 – Race
Jacques Villeneuves’ accident during qualifying probably cost Damon Hill pole position, which went to Michael Schumacher. Hill, however, had the last laugh on Sunday coming through to score his sixth win this season.
Schumacher has made the mistake of predicting that the Ferraris would come good in the second half of the season, beginning in Canada. That was not a race he will wish to be reminded of and anyone daring to mention the French Grand Prix probably better be wearing riot gear! At least in Canada he made it to half distance before retiring, here he couldn’t even make it to the green light as his engine expired on the parade lap. You could almost hear Hill cheering as he was effectively promoted to pole position. The order now, with Schumacher out of the way, was Hill, Alesi, Berger, Hakkinen and Villeneuve, who had struggled during qualifying, taking off the side of his FW18 and halting the session at one point.
At the lights Berger dropped two places, but beyond that the order remained the same. Hill now started to put some space between himself and Alesi and over the next twelve laps the gap increased steadily to 6.6 seconds.
Meanwhile the second Ferrari of Eddie Irvine was also in trouble. Having started from the back of the grid for a technical infringement during qualifying, which strangely didn’t also effect Schumacher’s car, he limped into the pits on lap 6 to retire. Another weekend when the Ferrari mechanics got to go home early.
Villeneuve was all over the back of Hakkinen’s car, with the gap never extending much above a second, but he just couldn’t find a way past the Finn. Pits stops would again play a big part. The first of the front runners came on lap 20 when Alesi went in for a 7.3 seconds stop and rejoined 4th behind Villeneuve.
On lap 27 Hill was in for his first stop and rejoined behind Villeneuve who, free of Hakkinen, started to put in a few quick laps until he too came in on lap 30.
The order after the first stops was Hill, Alesi, Villeneuve, Hakkinen, Berger and Coulthard. Villeneuve started to chase down Alesi and got past him without too much problem on lap 37. The gap to Hill was now 11.293 seconds.
Alesi was again the first of the front runners to stop, on lap 42, rejoining 5th. He was joined by Berger on lap 47 and Villeneuve, Coulthard and Hakkinen on lap 49, 50 and 51 respectively. Hill was the last front runner to stop and did so on lap 53, being stationary for only 7.2 seconds ensured he came out in front.
It was now a race to the flag. Villeneuve never really looked like making any impression on Hills lead and the gap remained about 13 seconds. The Benetton twins behind ran in formation, obviously deciding that it was better to finish than to knock each other out and incur the wrath of Flavio Briatore. And behind them the two McLarens.
So Hill came home for win number six some eight seconds ahead of his team-mate, Villeneuve. It would be a brave man who would bet against Hill winning the championship now and perhaps he will break Nigel Mansell’s 1992 record of nine wins in a season.
In the constructors championship too Williams look unassailable with 101 points, 60 odd points more than their nearest rival.