The 1996 season was a straight fight between the two Williams drivers, the relatively experienced Damon Hill and the rookie Jacques Villeneuve. Damon held the upper hand for most of the season but Jacques came on strongly late in the season. The 1996 Ferrari was too unreliable and too far from the pace to allow Michael Schumacher to seriously challenge for the drivers' championship, while Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger struggled to get the best out of the Benetton B196.
Statistics for 1996, including drivers' race by race ratings
Ratings for first half of 1996
Ratings for second half of 1996
Overall ratings for 1996
1. Michael Schumacher Michael Schumacher had a phenomenal season in 1996. The 1996 Ferrari F310 wasn't as close to the pace of the Williams as the 1995 Ferrari 412T2, nor was it particularly reliable, and yet he won three races and finished "best of the rest" behind the Williams duo in the drivers' championship. Crashing out at Monaco, albeit after taking an excellent pole position, was the only serious mishap. His wet weather win at Spain was particularly outstanding, where he left the rest of the field well behind, and he was very good value for his win at Belgium. He also did very well to overhaul Jean Alesi's Benetton at Italy, staying out for longer and putting in some very fast laps at the right moment. Overall, his season rating of 8.88 exceeded that of his remarkable 1995 season (8.79).
2. Rubens Barrichello After being outpaced by Eddie Irvine in 1995, Rubens was rejuvenated early in the season, comprehensively beating team mate Martin Brundle and taking a number of points finishes. He was especially competitive in the wet at Brazil, vying with Jean Alesi for second place, but tried a bit too hard and spun out. Things went downhill a bit in the second half of the season when Martin Brundle started to get the better of him, but overall it was a strong season.
3. Damon Hill Damon finally took the world championship this year, though he was pushed hard by his rookie team mate Jacques Villeneuve. He was particularly strong in the first half of the season, combining good pace with not many errors, though he made more mistakes in the second half of the season as Jacques grew stronger. While Damon Hill generally lacked the out-and-out pace of Michael Schumacher, he was a worthy champion in 1996 after having held Williams together after Ayrton Senna's death in 1994 and having mounted a serious championship challenge that year. He could justifiably feel hard done by when Williams replaced him with Heinz-Harald Frentzen for 1997. 4. Mika Häkkinen Although he slipped a place and 0.1 of a mark relative to his 1995 season, it was miraculous that Mika was able to perform at a comparable level after his near-fatal accident at Adelaide 1995. He started the season with some solid, if unspectacular, drives, and then lost his way for a while, making numerous errors and often being outpaced by team mate David Coulthard. But in the second half of the season he was excellent, regaining the speed that he had showed in previous seasons, and combining it with far fewer errors than before. His performances in late 1996 were all the more remarkable when you consider that Mika didn't think he was fully recovered from his 1995 accident until the latter part of the 1997 season.
5. Mika Salo Mika Salo was, in my view, underrated by most pundits due to his Tyrrell often being a long way off the pace, although Jonathan Palmer in his 1996 season review also had him ranked 5th. He was particularly strong early in the season, he scored points at the first two races and finished fifth at Monaco, a track where he often went well. The Tyrrell fell from the pace late in the season, and it was understandable under the circumstances that his performances suffered a little as well. But he consistently had the better of team mate Ukyo Katayama, who had often been impressive during the 1994 season.
6. Jacques Villeneuve He may have ranked only 6th, but this was an impressive performance in just his first season in F1. Jacques was competitive right from the first race at Australia, where he matched Damon Hill's pace and fought hard for the win. He lost his way for a while after that, making a number of typical rookie errors, but he came on strongly in the second half of the season, when he frequently outpaced Damon Hill, and stayed in contention for the drivers' championship right until the end of the season. An audacious pre-planned overtaking move around the outside of Michael Schumacher at Portugal was the highlight of his season.
7. Jean Alesi Jean expected, and was expected, to be a serious championship contender in a car that had won the title in 1995, but Michael Schumacher was a very tough act to follow, and the pressure got too much. He had the pace to seriously challenge Damon Hill at Brazil and Argentina, but made numerous errors early in the season. After some dressing downs from boss Flavio Briatore, he learnt to calm down and drive for the championship, but in the process he lost some of his speed and desire to win. That said, he had a strong run of form from Monaco through to Germany, and he would probably have won at Monaco had it not been for a rare Benetton mechanical failure. Overall, statistically his best season, with 47 points, but in many ways a disappointment.
8. David Coulthard David Coulthard started the season strongly, and in the first half of the season he often had the better of team mate Mika Häkkinen. A very strong third place at the European GP at the Nurburgring, and second at Monaco, were the highlights of his season. However, in the second half of the season he was generally outpaced and the silly mistakes that plagued his 1995 season also crept back in. Overall, performance wise his 1996 season only improved slightly over his 1995 season.
9. Heinz-Harald Frentzen After having often been superb in 1995, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was generally disappointing in 1996, making far more mistakes and often falling short of the pace that he showed the previous year. Towards the end of the season, he was quite often outpaced by team mate Johnny Herbert. He got the Williams drive for 1997 mainly because he had been better than Damon Hill in 1995, but he certainly wasn't better than him in 1996. Nonetheless, there were occasional strong performances, notably at Spain and Portugal, which reminded us of what he was capable of.
10. Eddie Irvine Being Michael Schumacher's team mate was rarely easy, and in the case of Eddie Irvine's 1996 season, he also struggled with regular mechanical unreliability. After a strong showing at the opening race at Australia where he finished third, he suffered from a lack of testing time and was generally well short of Schumacher's pace. But overall, he did just enough to make it into my top ten.
Drivers 11 to 15
11. Gerhard Berger Gerhard Berger was too tall for a Benetton chassis that was roughly based around Michael Schumacher's championship winning B195, and he struggled to get the best out of the car, and was generally outpaced by Jean Alesi, especially in the first half of the season. However, he produced the team's best performance at the German GP, when he got just ahead of Damon Hill and looked likely to hold him off for the win, only to suffer a rare Renault engine failure. Over the second half of the season he matched Jean Alesi's rating, but just fell short of my top ten this year.
12. Olivier Panis The centrepiece of Olivier Panis's season was the Monaco win, which was opportunistic but he drove a very good race there in any case. However, from the Spanish GP through to the Italian GP, he had a long run of mediocre form, characterised by frequent mistakes and occasionally being outpaced by pay driver Pedro Diniz.
13. Martin Brundle Martin had a very difficult start to the 1996 season, with a hefty shunt at the opening race at Australia where his car broke into two pieces. It took him a while to get back up to speed, but in the second half of the season he was solid and quite often had the better of team mate Rubens Barrichello. Despite his strong second half of the season, he didn't get a drive for 1997, but ultimately proved to be far more successful in the commentary box.
14. Johnny Herbert Having spent 1995 in the shadow of Michael Schumacher, Johnny Herbert similarly suffered from being overshadowed by Heinz-Harald Frentzen early in the 1996, but towards the end of the season he found some good form and started to get the better of Frentzen at times.
15. Ukyo Katayama Although he was again comprehensively beaten by Mika Salo, Ukyo Katayama was closer to the pace than he had been during his disappointing 1995 season - though still not as good as he had been in 1994. He was sometimes able to match Salo in the second half of the season and his best result was 7th at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
16. Jos Verstappen He showed flashes of speed and flair, and finished a fine sixth at Argentina in a Footwork that was rather off the pace, and he easily had the better of his journeyman team mate Ricardo Rosset. However, he was somewhat inconsistent, and there were a number of average performances and mistakes strewn through the season.
17. Giancarlo Fisichella Although he ranked only 17th this year, it wasn't a bad effort for his first season in F1, especially as he was in a lowly Minardi that was well off the pace. His best result was 8th at Canada, and his performances were good enough to give him a drive in the more competitive Jordan team for 1997.
18. Pedro Diniz Generally dismissed as another pay driver, Pedro Diniz's speed improved as the season went on, and on occasion he got the better of his highly rated team mate Olivier Panis. A number of mistakes and crashes hindered his chances of climbing up the order.
19. Pedro Lamy There was little that Pedro Lamy could do in the slow Minardi, but having said that, he was generally outpaced by his rookie team mate Giancarlo Fisichella.
20. Luca Badoer Another season wasted in a back end car, the notoriously slow Forti, but he did at least get the better of team mate Andrea Montermini.
21. Andrea Montermini Not as quick as Luca Badoer, and he didn't get another season in F1.
22. Ricardo Rosset Often well off the pace and well beaten by team mate Jos Verstappen - even when Jos had his off days he usually came out on top.
23. Giovanni Lavaggi He was closer to the pace in 1996 than in 1995, but he was still about a second a lap slower than Pedro Lamy, who in turn was slower than Giancarlo Fisichella.