Japanese Grand Prix 1996 – Race
So Hill is the 1996 World Champion, after a number of nail-biting races towards the end of the season where Villeneuve was able to close the gap.
To ensure success Hill only had to stay out of trouble, hope for reliability and score a solitary point. Villeneuve on the other hand had to win and was expected to.
After all the bad press that Hill has received for his bad starts this season it came as quite a shock to see him make such a great get away, leaving a slow starting and sideways Villeneuve to slip back into the clutches of the chasing pack, his chances of a win and the championship seemingly gone within the first ten seconds. Alesi’s second corner crash elevated Villeneuve to 6th but still some five seconds behind the leader, Hill. Lap three and Berger attempted to take Hill for the lead, assuming perhaps that Hill won’t close the door on him and risk going off – Wrong! Hill keeps to his line costing Berger his wing, second place and any chance of Benetton taking second place in the constructors championship. At the end of the lap the order was Hill, Hakkinen, four seconds adrift, Schumacher, Irvine, Villeneuve and Brundle.
While the gap between Hill and Hakkinen remained constant at four seconds, Villeneuve was slipping further behind being held up by Irvine. After several attempts Villeneuve finally passed the Ferrari on lap 12, set fastest lap on the very next time round and then drives into the pits for his first stop. Unfortunately his exit was delayed waiting for the Jordan of Brundle to pass down the pit lane, subsequently Villeneuve re-joined 11th with it all to do again.
Hill’s stop was perfect allowing him to rejoin first, the order now being Hill, Schumacher, Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Irvine and Berger. While Hakkinen was caught by Villeneuve he never looked under threat and the positions remained unchanged until the second stops. Villeneuve came in on the 32nd lap with a suspected puncture in the left rear tyre, rejoining 6th. Hill stopped a lap later rejoining 1st and looking strong.
A lap later it was all over, Damon was king. Villeneuve was in the gravel trap, his left rear wheel missing, his pre-second stop tyre problems weren’t a puncture at all but something much more serious, causing him to loose a wheel which bounded into the crowed with alarming speed.
Villeneuve had given it his best shot and will have many more opportunities no doubt. Hill now had an untroubled run to the flag for his 21st win and his first championship. Schumacher’s second place ensured Ferrari’s second place in the constructors championship and underlined what a threat they could be next season.
A great gesture on the podium, when the man most instrumental in Hill and William’s success, Adrian Newey, received the trophy for the team and shared the top step of the podium with Hill – a fitting end to a hard fought season.