In the recent history of Formula 1, the Japanese Grand Prix it has often been synonymous with strong emotions linked to the triumph of a driver in the championship, such as to make this appointment one of the most decisive and decisive ever. In this sense, what happened in 1996 when, exactly twenty-five years ago, a case occurred for the first time that at that moment touched the hearts of many.
To understand in more detail the phenomenon that moved the world of motor racing, it is necessary to go back more than 20 years from that episode, reaching as far as 1975. In that year, enthusiasts and professionals mourned the death of Graham Hill, who died in a plane crash. Winner of two world titles in Formula 1 in 1962 and 1968, the Briton is still the only one to have obtained the Triple Crown during his career, having in fact won the Monaco GP, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Character of great popularity between the 60s and 70s, he lost his life leaving two girls and a boy orphaned of his father, Damon, who had just turned 15 in 1975.
The latter, also attracted by the world of motors, decided to follow in the footsteps of his parent, to the point of making his debut in Formula 1 in the 90s. Hired by Williams, Hill came close to the world title in 1994 after a controversial contact with Michael Schumacher, failing to adequately raise the gauntlet to the German in 1995.
The situation, on the other hand, changed drastically in 1996: with the passage of the now former Benetton driver to Ferrari, Williams-Renault became the undisputed star of the Circus again, doing so with a couple of drivers who were born in the art. In addition to the confirmed Damon Hill, Sir Frank’s team promoted a young Canadian to F1 as Jacques Villeneuve, son of the unforgettable Gilles. At the same time, while Benetton and Ferrari failed to keep pace with Williams throughout 1996, the British team saw their drivers in constant battle with each other throughout the rest of the season. Villeneuve tried several times to counter his partner in the rookie year, but Hill responded with seven wins, against the Canadian’s four.
However, the more regular presence on the podium of the North American compared to the British in the remaining races meant that in the last round of the 1996 championship, valid for the Japanese Grand Prix (which returned to play the role of the final race of the world championship for the first time since 1977), Villeneuve introduced himself to Suzuka with still the possibility of being able to win the title, thanks to the nine points behind the top. To do so, however, he would have had to win the race and hope for a simultaneous retirement or exit from Hill’s points zone, which, on the other hand, only needed one point to secure the title.
– Williams Racing (@WilliamsRacing) October 13, 2021
Both in practice and in qualifying, Villeneuve’s pace was frenzied: trimming almost half a second behind his teammate, the Canadian from Quebec easily won pole position, in an extreme attempt to stay ahead of everyone even in view of the race. However, when this was staged on October 13, 1996, he was the architect of a departure to be forgotten. Thanks to a disastrous shot, the number 6 got off to a terrible start, even slipping into sixth position. Instead, Hill took advantage of this unexpected assist to take the lead.
While Villeneuve attempted a desperate comeback, the Briton’s dreams of glory risked breaking dramatically on lap three, when Gerhard Berger he attempted a risky attack against the leader of the race: at the braking of the last chicane before the finish, the Austrian went long under braking, touching Williams. In the collision, it was the former Ferrari driver who got the worst of it, who spun, while Hill went through unscathed despite the thrill.
The Japanese GP did not experience any other particular emotions, and it was actually decided on lap 37: Villeneuve, after making the second stop, was in fact forced to retire due to a puncture. From that moment, regardless of the final result of the race, Hill was mathematically champion of the 1996 Formula 1 world.
The Englishman still led the way to the finish line, moving the commentator live Murray Walker: with the title victory, Hill became the first driver to join his father in the roll of honor of the drivers’ championship. Despite this moment of very strong emotions, 1996 coincided with his first and only affirmation in the world championship: at the end of the season, in fact, the divorce from Williams materialized, which would have led him to defend the title in 1997 at the wheel of the less competitive Arrows. Hill would retire two years later, in 1999, with 22 F1 victories and always carrying with him the memories of that afternoon in Suzuka, where he felt more than ever the presence of his father Graham on the podium.