1996 was a typical Williams year – one of championships and controversy. A year in which the team equalled the record, previously held by Ferrari, of constructors’ championships won and also let yet another world champion go.
The year started with another change of driver as well as a move from the teams old Didcot base to the new state-of-the-art premises just down the road in Grove. Jacques Villeneuve came fresh from winning both the Indy-500 and the Indy-car championship. Drivers making the switch from the US-series tend not to have fared too well. It was perhaps with this in mind the Villeneuve undertook a massive pre-season testing programme, clocking up thousands of miles in an effort to acclimatise himself to his new surroundings. It was obviously time well spent as Villeneuve placed his FW18 on the pole for the first race of the season in Melbourne. Villeneuve led away but a mistake under pressure from Hill saw his car began to loose oil forcing him to slow allowing Hill into the lead and his first win of the season. In years to come it will not be Hill’s win that will be remembered – but the pace of Villeneuve.
It was a more subdued Villeneuve at the next two races while Hill was on scintillating form taking both pole and first place at Brazil and Argentina. The first race in Europe was also to mark Villeneuves first win, in only his fourth race in Formula One. Four races into the season and already it was looking bleak for the opposition, the Williams duo had amassed more points than all others put together. It was situation normal it Imola as Hill racked up another ten points while Villeneuve had rare mechanical problems. At Monaco things went horribly wrong – and not just for Williams. Hill was leading comfortable when he retired in plumes of smoke with engine failure while Villeneuve fared no better, colliding with a back marker – the race was eventually won by Olivier Panis. In the rains of Spain Schumacher excelled and Villeneuve did well to come home third while Hill spun off.
He said he wasn’t bothered about winning his home grand prix, on a circuit named after his father, any more than any other race but the pressure was on Villeneuve to win. In the end it was Hill who crossed the line first followed by the Canadian. It was at Canada that Renault dropped their bombshell, that they would be leaving F1 at the end of the ’97 season. Speculation was immediately rife as to who Benetton and Williams would use in Renault’s place. Williams have stated that they will make no announcement on who their partner will be until the second half of 1997.
It was another 1-2 in France, with Hill leading home Villeneuve. Hill was now 25 points ahead of Villeneuve in the title race while Williams were into the hundreds, 66 points ahead of the nearest challenger. In Britain Hill was all charged up to win but, in what must have been sweet revenge for Canada, Villeneuve took the victory while Hill spun out with wheel-bearing failure.
It was at the German GP that rumours first surfaced about Hill being replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen for the 1997 season. Hill answered his critics by taking victory in the race with Villeneuve trailing in third. The championship race was now just between the two Williams drivers.
At the tight Hungarian GP Villeneuve took the victory with Hill second. Two weeks later, in Belgium, Schumacher took the flag with Villeneuve second ad Hill fifth. The Italian GP will be one that Williams and Damon Hill in particular will wish to forget. Leading up to the race it had finally been made official that Hill’s contract would not be renewed and in the race itself a brush with the tyres, place at Hill insistence at the chicane, caused him to spin out. Villeneuve was caught out by the same rubber but was able to continue but finished 7th, out of the points.
Back on track in Portugal with another Williams 1-2, Villeneuve leading home Hill, after a stunning passing manoeuvre. The win set up a thrilling championship conclusion. Hill had only to score a point to ensure his place in the history books while Villeneuve had to win the race with Hill scoring no points. Villeneuve made the right start by putting his FW18 on pole but got bogged down when the lights went green and his car shed a wheel before the race was over. Hill went on to win the race and, therefore, the championship. In the constructors championship, Williams scored twice as many points as second placed Ferrari, thereby equalling their record of championship wins.
Williams now entered a period of uncertainly – Frentzen, signed to replace Hill, is a risk, but worst was the split with ace designer Adrian Newey, who at the end of 1996, was on “Gardening” leave. It seems most likely that Newey will be heading for McLaren. On top of this Williams have not signed the new Concorde agreement and despite now wishing to do so have to wait until all signatories agree to it. No doubt hey will make sure they extract the most concessions that they can before Williams are re-admitted.