The 1996 must be the year of redemption for Williams, which in the previous two seasons, despite huge investments and indisputably competitive cars, failed to take home the drivers' title after the one won with Prost in 1993 and the constructors' title harvested the following year.
Williams comes from two difficult seasons not only because of the expected results that have not arrived, but also because in 1994 they had to face the dramatic death of Ayrton Senna, an event that actually shocked not only the British team, but the whole racing world.
The first driver consequently becomes Damon Hill, son of the two World Champion Graham Hill from London; the Englishman, who has fought for the victory of the world title already in the previous two seasons with David Coulthard at his side, arrives at the beginning of the 1996 season at a mature age and with the right experience accumulated alongside champions such as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, after making his debut on the Brabham in 1992 replacing the Italian Giovanna Amati.
After the departure of David Coulthard, who migrated to McLaren, an absolute rookie was chosen alongside the London driver, but not just any one: the driver in question is in fact the Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, son of the talented father Gilles who died prematurely in Zolder in 1982 at Ferrari steering wheel. A decidedly suggestive couple, made even more fascinating by a vehicle that promises to be the car to beat since winter.
The main changes in 1996 concern the sporting regulations, which make the qualifying format shorter, reduced to just one session on Saturday afternoon after eliminating the one on Friday. Furthermore, the 107% rule is introduced: this rule establishes that the qualifying time of each driver must fall within 107% of the time set by the poleman of the day to be considered qualified for the race.
The traffic light on the street also changes: no more red and green lights, but five red lights are introduced that turn on in progression from second to second and then go out at the same time. The numbering of the cars also changes: no longer number 1 for the World Champion team and exchange of numbers with the one that owns it, but number 1 for the reigning champion driver and progressive numbering that follows the constructors' classification of the previous year. In this way the two Williams drivers Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve take the numbers 5 and 6 respectively, while the 1 ends up on what is Michael Schumacher’s first Ferrari. The twelve-cylinder engines are definitively abandoned in favor of the V10s, considered the ideal compromise in terms of dimensions and performance.
A solid foundation
The new Williams FW18, designed by the duo composed of Adrian Newey and Patrick Head, is a development of the previous FW17 and FW17B, as well as daughters of the same designers; cars that the year before had shown great competitiveness without, however, being able to go beyond five seasonal victories.
It therefore becomes logical to start from this solid foundation and come up with a car that can guarantee one more step to take the title home. The carbon fiber frame is redesigned by Adrian Newey along the lines of the FW17B, adapting to the indications of the new regulations: made mandatory, raised edges are introduced on the sides of the cockpit to protect the riders' head and neck, to limit the danger of any side impacts. The issue of security after the dramatic events of 1994 is in fact one of the most sensitive for the international federation (FIA).
The side bellies become higher, exactly like the new nose which is no longer sloping with the nose on the asphalt but raised like that of the Benetton B195 World Champion in 1995. The rear wing is also modified to fit the new rear suspension system, designed by Adrian Newey, to better match the new chassis.
This car, equipped with Goodyear tires, is fitted with a 67° Renault RS8B V10 engine with 2998 cm³ of displacement. Maximum power reaches over seven hundred horsepower, while the gearbox is electronically controlled sequential semi-automatic, with six ratios plus reverse. The weight is around 600 kg with petrol and rider.
A domain never in question
The first round of the season takes place on the brand-new Albert Park circuit in Melbourne: Williams immediately sets the record straight by winning the first row in qualifying, with rookie Jacques Villeneuve surprising everyone and taking pole position in front of the well more experienced stablemate. In the race, the Canadian makes a mistake in his youth with an off-piste that gives way to Hill's first victory; the double, however, did not escape Williams, with Irvine's Ferrari completing the podium.
Two more wins followed for Hill in Brazil and Argentina, both accompanied by pole position. Villeneuve instead retires to Interlagos after a spin and completes the second double of the season in Buenos Aires. After three races Hill is therefore at full points, while Villeneuve is still at twelve. All the other pursuers are already very far behind with Alesi's Benetton alone at ten points.
It quickly becomes clear that the world championship fight will be an internal matter between the two Williams bishops, the sons of art who are reviving the glories of the two great names they bring back to the grid. The fourth round is the European Grand Prix, raced on the Nurburgring circuit: this becomes the scene of the first success in Formula 1 for the easy-going Jacques Villeneuve, after an exciting head-to-head with Michael Schumacher. Hill, who starts from pole, misses the start and does not go beyond fourth place: 33 to 22 is now the comparison between the two in favor of the Englishman.
In the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Damon wins again, while Jacques is stopped by a reliability problem while he was sixth and on a comeback. In the daring Monaco Grand Prix in the wet comes the first and only double retirement of the season, with the victory going to the Ligier of the French Oliver Panis.
Even in Barcelona, the scene of the Spanish Grand Prix, the Williams race is anything but unforgettable, with Hill retiring after several mistakes in the wet and Villeneuve not going beyond third place, while Michael Schumacher celebrates his first victory with Ferrari. After seven races the classification sees Damon Hill in the lead with 43 points, and Jacques Villeneuve stopped at 26.
Three consecutive races without a win would be too much for the Williams FW18, which in fact returns to the fore with two consecutive braces in Canada and France, both won by Hill. The twenty-five points difference after nine races already seems an insurmountable gap for Gilles’s new-born son, who nevertheless does not give up in subsequent races.
The Canadian wins in fact at Silverstone (with Hill out) and Budapest (with Hill second), interspersed with a third place in Germany where Damon Hill wins yet another victory at the end of a race dominated by Berger's Benetton until a problem of reliability on the penultimate lap slows him down.
The 79 points in favor of the Englishman compared to the Canadian driver's 62, with four races still on the calendar, do not now seem so impossible to recover. After the double in Germany, however, with five races to go there is already something to celebrate: the constructors' title, if ever there were any doubts, has already been mathematically won by Williams.
Spa and Monza prove to be two difficult races for Williams, which limits the damage in Belgium while finishing without points in Italy. On both occasions, Schumacher's Ferrari triumphed, bringing the Prancing Horse's seasonal victories to three.
Hill's 81 points, against Villeneuve's 68, leave the title fight still open, with the races in Portugal and Japan becoming decisive. Villeneuve, after a bad start and then continuously growing, triumphs in Portugal ahead of Hill, bringing the gap to nine points and thus leaving his chances open until the last round in Japan. At Damon Hill, however, it will be enough to score points at Suzuka to secure the title mathematically.
The front row of the Japanese Grand Prix is entirely the preserve of the English team, with Villeneuve putting pressure on his teammate immediately behind him. In the race, however, Hill takes the lead and does not leave it until the checkered flag, while Villeneuve retires.
On October 13, 1996, Damon Hill thus became World Champion at the age of thirty-six. This is the first time that two generations (father and son) of the same family have won at least one world title in Formula 1. The record will remain unique until 2016, when Nico Rosberg will add his family to the winning dynasties of Formula 1.
The Williams FW18 therefore closes a 1996 season dominated with impressive numbers: twelve wins (eight by Hill, four by Villeneuve) out of sixteen races, six braces, twelve pole positions (nine by Hill, three by Villeneuve) and, of course, the constructors' title and that pilots.