The 1996 Formula One Season Preview

With the opening race in Melbourne just a few weeks away, it is time to preview the season and evaluate the teams and drivers.

Overwhelming favourites for both Driver's and Constructor's titles are Damon Hill and his Williams team. The FW18 has shown to be on the pace in pre-season testing and Hill's familiarity with the team and the tracks they race on, would seem to give him the advantage over his new teammate Jacques Villeneuve. I expect Villeneuve to win at least a couple of races this year but not the overall title. One area that he will have to master quickly is the standing start - something he has not had to do in Indycar or Formula Atlantic - though his experience with multiple pit-stops each race is a definite plus in his favour.

Michael Schumacher could probably have won his third championship in a row had he stayed with Benetton, but the lure of thr Prancing Horse (and a paycheck he couldn't refuse) led him to Ferrari for '96. The new Ferrari V10 has not yet shown the reliability needed to challenge for the title, but Schumacher's skill will still allow him to be in a place to score points, as long as his car stays together. He is joined by Eddie Irvine who will have to keep his cool if he wants to step up to the next level and start winning races.

Benetton gets Marenello's driving line-up in Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. Both will be in the hunt for the title and should give Hill a run for his money. The B196 though, will have to be a lot more forgiving than the twitchy B195 in order to suit their driving styles, especially Berger.

Though Schumacher's on the limit style could tame the '95 Benetton, the same could not be said for Johnny Herbert who struggled for most of the season as the team focused on Schumacher. His two wins were opportunistic but well deserved and he stands a good chance to add to that tally in the new Ford V10 powered Sauber. His team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen has already demonstrated his speed and given the right equipment, could easily be atop the podium this year. Reliability of the new engine will be a major factor.

Also looking to become one of the major players in Formula One are Jordan who will again have Rubens Barichello in the cockpit. This is Barichello's chance to establish himself among the top drivers and he has shown will in testing. He is paired with veteran Martin Brundle who returns to his former F3 team. His experience should prove invaluable in testing and setting up the car and Barichello will benefit greatly from around.

Looking to bounce back from their disasterous '95 season will be McLaren, who in Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard have two of the most promising drivers in F1. If McLaren can provide the equipment in '96 Hakinnen could stand on top of the podium, while Coulthard will be out to show Frank Williams that he got rid of the wrong driver last year.

Of the other teams, they seem to be evenly matched and some good racing should be the end result.

Jos Verstappen in the Arrows has already shown well in testing, though F3000 graduate Ricardo Rosset may be a little out of his depth.
Another of Tyrrell's long list of young stars (like Jean Alesi and Michele Alboreto were) is Mika Salo who given the right equipment could give countryman Hakkinen some competition. Paymaster Ukyo Katayama has put in some stunning qualifying performances but has never been able to carry it through a whole race, and don't expect him to anytime soon.
Pedro Lamy in the well balanced Minardi could well be in the points regularly but don't expect much from Taki Inoue who's sponsorship money is more useful than his driving skill.
Trying hard not to drop to the back of the grid will be Ligier, a shadow of its former self operating on a fraction of last years budget. Though it retained the services of young Olivier Panis who must have been the disappointment of '95 following his spectacular arrival in '94, they have had to go with the well financed, but generally outclassed Pedro Diniz in order to keep the money flowing.
Bringing up the rear and in danger of falling foul of the 107% qualifying rule dispite the use of the Zetec R V8 engine, is the little Forti team with the gritty Andrea Montermini and Luca Badoer. With the loss of Pedro Diniz and his hefty backing they will be lucky to make it through to Japan.

So come October expect to see Damon Hill, closely followed by Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger and Jacques Villeneuve. Only slightly further back will be Barichello, Schumacher, Frentzen, Herbert, Coulthard and Hakinnen.
And if Damon wins he might finally stop bitching about Schumacher.....

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