Spanish Grand Prix: Why Michael Schumacher's epic 1996 win matters

michael schumacher

Michael Schumacher's achievements are so colossal, statistically, that it is sometimes hard to separate the exceptional from the humdrum.

The catalogue of wins in the early 2000s, once the Ferrari team under Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne had hit their stride, was so overwhelming that each tends to blend into the next. In those cars, probably any driver of consequence could have achieved what Schumacher did.

But it was not always like that. When Schumacher joined Ferrari, after two consecutive titles with Benetton in 1994-95, the team were on the rack, and he was brought in to save them.

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I cried and cried - Chris Rea remembers 1996 race

The title drought stretched back nearly 20 years, to Jody Scheckter in 1979, and the wins had been spread pretty thinly, too - none at all in 1991, '92 or '93, one each in '94 and '95.

The under-achievements had been largely technical in those years - but not always.

When Schumacher first drove the 1995 Ferrari at Estoril in winter testing at the end of the season, he was nearly two seconds quicker than regular drivers Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger had ever gone. And by no means all of that could be explained by the more advantageous conditions.

In that car, it was very obvious, Schumacher could have achieved plenty with Ferrari in 1995.

Unfortunately for him, the 1996 car was a dog.

michael schumacher breaks down in f1 testing
Dog on a lead: The Ferrari 310 caused major headaches for the team during pre-season testing

It looked like a bathtub, its high cockpit sides an overly-literal interpretation of new safety rules, and it went like one, too, lacking grip, downforce and balance.

In it, though, Schumacher underlined his greatness arguably more effectively than he ever did when unlimited budget and testing, bespoke tyres, and ruthless management unfurled before him advantageously - arguably more than any driver has ever enjoyed.

The car should never have won a race - as team-mate Eddie Irvine's performances underlined. But Schumacher, as all great drivers do, found a way to transcend its shortcomings.

The first example was in Argentina early in the season, when he somehow manhandled the unwilling machine on to the front row, with a qualifying lap from the gods, all acrobatic reflexes, visibly dancing on the razor's edge.

But of all the amazing things he achieved that year, one stands out more than any - his victory in Spain.

Jean Alesi and Michael Schumacher
And another: Michael Schumacher sees off Jean Alesi during the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix

It absolutely poured down all day. A wetter grand prix it is hard to imagine, and the conditions were so bad that, now, the race would probably not have happened.

It did, though. In the gloom, Damon Hill, on pole in the dominant Williams-Renault, spun twice in the first nine laps. Schumacher made a bad start and dropped back from his third place on the grid, but by lap 13 he was past Hill's team-mate Jacques Villeneuve and into the lead.

From there, he never looked back, regularly lapping five seconds - yes, you read that right - faster than anyone else.

There were extenuating circumstances, to an extent. Ferrari had gone all the way with a wet set-up, while Williams had gambled on it drying later on and hedged their bets. But that on its own could not explain the gulf between Schumacher and the rest.

It was a day when one driver raised himself to a level beyond the reach of his rivals and it was in many ways reminiscent of another great performance on a soaking wet Iberian peninsula, in Portugal 11 years before.

Like Ayrton Senna's first career win in 1985, Schumacher's maiden Ferrari victory has gone down in the annals as one of the greatest wet weather drives in history, from one of F1's greatest ever talents.

michael schumacher breaks down durign f1 testing in 1996
"Yep, it's definitely broken - I'm off for a cuppa." The Ferrari's exhaust catches fire in 1996 testing
michael schumacher breaks down in f1 testing
The German is considered a saviour at Ferrari for his achievements
Michael Schumacher
The Spanish Grand Prix was the first of three races that Schumacher won in 1996. He came third in the Drivers' Championship, behind British world champion Damon Hill and his Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve
michael schumacher breaks down in f1 testing
Seven-time champion Schumacher is still recovering from severe head injuries he suffered in a ski-ing accident more than two years ago