Michael Schumacher won his second World Championship title for Benetton in a style more befitting his exceptional talent than the ugly collision at Adelaide in 1994. He ground the opposition into the dust - principal among which was Damon Hill, whose relationship with Williams was torn apart.
Williams retained David Coulthard alongside Hill, snubbing Nigel Mansell who stunned the F1 world by joining Mika Hakkinen at McLaren. Ron Dennis’ cars were powered by Mercedes for the first time. At Benetton, champion Schumacher was boosted by the arrival of Renault engines. Johnny Herbert, Schumacher’s team mate for the last two rounds of ‘94, also stayed.
Ferrari kept Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. Sauber welcomed back Karl Wendlinger to partner Heinz-Harald Frentzen, though the team was smarting from the loss of Mercedes engines and would use Fords instead. Eddie Jordan kept his line-up of Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine, and took over the Peugeot engine supply that had been McLaren’s.
Forti Corse made their Formula One arrival with back-of-the-grid stalwart Roberto Moreno and wealthy Pedro Diniz. 1994 debutants Pacific and Simtek both limped into a second season, but neither would see the year out.
Williams seize the initiative
Hill was unfortunate not to win first time out in Brazil as a rear suspension failure pitched him off the circuit while he led. Conversely Schumacher and Coulthard were lucky to keep their win and second place after their Elf fuel was deemed illegal. Unusually the FIA let the drivers keep their points, but not the teams.
The Englishman made good in the next two rounds, winning both. The first on F1’s return to Argentina, albeit on a truncated, slow, bumpy and unpopular version of the Buenos Aires circuit. The second a wet/dry race in Imola after Schumacher spun off. The circuit had been emasculated in chicanes after the horrors of 1994.
Schumacher strikes back
Benetton retaliated with a timely 1-2 for Schumacher and Herbert in Spain. Williams’ tactical weakness relative to Benetton was blindingly obvious on many occasions in 1995, and never more so than in Monaco. Hill, pitting twice, couldn’t race quickly enough to pull ahead of one-stopping Schumacher, and was utterly thwarted by the inevitable heavy traffic.
The Williams unreliability that had ended three of Coulthard’s five starts up to Monaco caught up with Hill in Canada. Car trouble stymied Schumacher too, but he nonetheless finished fifth while Jean Alesi took an emotional win for Ferrari, bearing the number 27 of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve at the Canadian’s home track.
Two races later there was another new winner in Johnny Herbert, who won his home race with compatriot Coulthard third after a stop/go penalty. But Hill was not in the points at home having had the first of two controversial collisions with Schumacher after an optimistic overtaking attempt.
Nigel Mansell was not at his home race. Having postponed his McLaren debut for two Grands Prix while they widened the cockpit to better accommodate him, he raced adequately in the low positions at Imola and Barcelona before retiring, not interested in driving an uncompetitive car. Mark Blundell took over. Karl Wendlinger also left Sauber after the Spanish race.
Schumacher made amends for his 1995 disappointment by winning at home in front of a madly adoring crowd. He was aided in his task by Hill, who took the lead only to spin off after one lap. Hill took the ten points back in Hungary when Schumacher retired, leaving him 11 points adrift.
It was a 15 point gap after Belgium when Schumacher produced a scintillating - if controversial - performance. Wet qualifying left Hill eighth and Schumacher 16th at the start, but both rose through the field rapidly. Schmacher took control of the race by staying out of the pits as the track dried, but used some questionable tactics to block Hill. Schumacher won, and Frank Williams quietly began making arrangements to replace his team leader.
Monza was something of a comedy of errors. Coulthard took his first pole but inexplicably spun off on the warm-up lap. He got another chance at leading the field away, though, after a first-lap crash blocked the circuit. He was out after 13 laps with front wheel bearing failure and Hill had his second run-in with Schumacher as the two lapped a slow Taki Inoue. The Ferraris led but Berger retired when Alesi’s TV camera fell off and smashed his team mate’s suspension, then Alesi pulled up with rear wheel bearing failure. Herbert eventually won.
It gets worse for Williams
In Portugal Hill’s championship chances took another blow. Coulthard became the year’s third debut winner but Schumacher was a handy second after smartly passing Hill - demonstrating canny overtaking prowess.
Looking to reap the sport’s new-found popularity in Germany a second race was held in the country, dubbed the ‘European’ Grand Prix. Although the venue - the new Nurburgring - had been slated when used in 1984 and 1985, it produced the best race of the season. Schumacher passed Hill (who later spun out) and Alesi, to win again. Schumacher sewed up the championship at TI Aida - the last time the tiny Japanese track was used - with another comfortable win over an utterly demoralised Hill.
But Hill’s season reached its nadir in Suzuka when he speared off the circuit at Spoon Curve, just one lap after his team mate had done the same. Benetton scored a 1-2 which sealed the Constructors’ title for them with one race left.
Adelaide held the Australian Grand Prix for the last time before the race became the opening event of the season and would be held at Melbourne. Schumacher’s big-money move to Ferrari for 1996 had been public for some time and he hoped to give Benetton a farewell victory and himself a record tenth win in a season. But it fell apart after unnecessary contact with Alesi - who, along with Berger, was to replace Schumacher at Benetton. Hill won with just a handful of cars circulating by the final laps.
Hakkinen survives horror shuntï¿½
But the season had not passed without the threat of driver injury rearing its head again. Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren crashed heavily in practice after a tyre failure and the Finn was given an emergency tracheotomy. To everyone’s relief, he survived.
Hill did not know at the time that the decision to replace him with Heinz-Harald Frentzen for 1997 had already been taken. Coulthard’s departure from Williams was already fixed: he would go to McLaren to join Hakkinen. In his place would come Jacques Villeneuve, CART champion and son of F1 hero Gilles, partly at the urging of F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone who was keen to see a new big personality in the sport which was suffering a charisma shortage after the loss of Senna.