Schumi's Struggle - 1996 Ferrari F310

27w ago


Scuderia Ferrari has a the longest and arguably the most glamorous history in Formula One, being present without interruption since the very first World Championship in 1950. However, their success has not been without interruption.

Throughout the first two decades of the sport, Ferrari bounced up and down in the standings, having to face off with both the industrial might of Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz and the small but capable "garagistes" like Cooper, Brabham and Lotus.

Ferrari was often slow to adapt to technical changes, for instance clinging on to front-engined cars in the late 1950s.

The first truly dark period commenced in the late 1960s, as Brabham, Lotus and McLaren seized the initiative, and Ferrari had to wait until 1975 to start winning titles convincingly again. That renewed success was due to an unexpected foreign agent: an unassuming young man known as Niki Lauda.

Enzo Ferrari was impressed with the boldness, technical knowhow and driving prowess of the young Austrian, and allowed him to turn the team around almost singlehandedly. Although he suffered a terrible accident at the Nurburgring, and narrowly lost the title to McLaren's James Hunt in 1976, Lauda's momentum carried on to another title the following season.

After Niki made a surprise move to Brabham, Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter took over the scarlet torch. The two proved to be an iron-clad driver duo, racking up points due to sheer consistency as the 312T4 wasn't exactly a front-running car. The points-grinding worked like a charm however, giving Scheckter the driver's title in 1979.

Jody Scheckter (left) and Gilles Villeneuve (right) celebrated what would be the last Ferrari title of the 20th century.

As the Scuderia moved into the 1980s however, it seemed to lose its way again. The famous flat engine which had hindered the 312T4 was finally abandoned in 1981, as Ferrari switched to a smaller, more ground-effect friendly twin turbo V6.

As soon as the teething problems with the unique hot-V engine were starting to get worked out however, the team suffered tragedy as Gilles Villeneuve lost his life in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Four months later, Didier Pironi suffered a similar incident, severely breaking both his legs.

The turbo era was one to forget for Ferrari.

After the tragedies of 1982, the team struggled to regain their form. In the end, the 1980s were to be remembered for overweight, ill-handling chassis, thirsty, unreliable engines, questionable driver choices and bad management. It took until the turbo ban in 1989 for Ferrari to show a degree of competence again, but their choice to pioneer a sequential-shift gearbox would cost them dearly.

Ferrari briefly bounced back in the early 90s.

Through constant development, the concept became a title challenger in 1990, helped in no small part by the talent of triple World Champion Alain Prost. With his expertise and refined design, Ferrari threatened to break McLaren's stranglehold on the sport.

However, an "exuberant" move by chief rival Ayrton Senna at the first corner of Suzuka put paid to those chances. Panic mode was seemingly activated once again the following year, as several lackluster chassis wore away Prost's confidence. Before the season was over, he was promptly sacked for making less than favorable comments about his car.

A plunge back into the abyss followed after Prost was fired.

With the relatively inexperienced Jean Alesi left to lead the team, it fell back into a deep hole of disappointment. A slew of truly terrible machines followed, and even the addition of veteran Gerhard Berger didn't alleviate the problem.

In fact, he and Alesi often seemed to make impromptu auditions for a drive in rallying, as the cars either spun off in the dirt, or were spectacularly overdriven to the point of sliding around every single corner. Aside from the handling problems, Ferrari kept clinging to the heavy, large and incredibly inefficient V12-layout, as everyone else with the means to was switching to the vastly superior V10.

With engines being brought down to 3.0L after the horrible events of the 1994 season, the V12 lost even more relevance, and Ferrari finally decided to act. The engine was allowed to live on for one more year in 1995, while work was in progress on a revolutionary new unit. During those two seasons while Ferrari struggled on, one of the key element to their return to form stepped into the spotlight: Micheal Schumacher.

A very nervous Michael Schumacher getting ready for his debut.

The young German had stormed onto the scene with a blistering qualifying performance at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, where he placed his sluggish Jordan 191 7th, despite never having driven at Spa before. Though the clutch failed within a few hundred yards, he had made a lasting impression on the paddock, and swiftly transferred to Benetton the following race.

Schumacher celebrating his second win at Estoril, 1993.

A year later he won his first race at the very same venue due to a clever tire change in drying weather, proving once and for all he was the one to watch. Another win followed in 1993 at Estoril in Portugal, but the real breakthrough would come in 1994.

A tragic and controversial season saw him come out on top, despite a very contentious collision with title rival Damon Hill on the streets of Adelaide. The accusations of dirty driving were stifled somewhat in 1995 however, as Michael Schumacher took his second title fair and square with the same Renault V10 Hill's Williams was using.

A sign of the future: Schumacher gives Alesi a ride after the Frenchman's unexpected win, Montreal 1995.

Though he had enjoyed amazing successes with the team, after almost five seasons with Benetton, Michael Schumacher was looking for another challenge. As double World Champion, it would be easy for him to rest on his laurels and trust his team would deliver another competitive car.

However, he was unhappy with certain actions taken by team management during the 1994 season. Disillusioned with the team, he left with one year remaining on his contract at the end of 1995 to join Ferrari, with the aim of bringing the team back to the top.

With this move, Schumacher left the relative comfort of Benetton to start a completely new and unproven project. Ferrari's reputation had obviously been tarnished by its performance in recent years, including the often hilariously inept pit crew.

Even though it was a massive risk, Schumacher banked on the potential of a brand new clean sheet design penned by former McLaren designer John Barnard. The new F310 was a major departure from the cars seen since Prost's ousting, as it was the first Ferrari to feature a V10.

The Tipo 046, Ferrari's first V10.

The 75 degree Tipo 046 V10 was not only much smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient than the Tipo 44 V12 dinosaur, it also produced 25 horsepower more even in base form. Whereas the final development of the 3.0 V12 produced 690 horsepower at 16.800 rpm, the V10 pushed out 715 at 15.550 rpm.

Its smaller size and lower weight promised better packaging and weight distribution, while it would combine slightly more power with vastly improved efficiency. A six-speed sequential transmission was responsible for powering the 13" rear wheels, which were clad in Goodyear Eagle tires. Thanks to its carbon fiber honeycomb monocoque chassis, the car conformed neatly to the 595 kg (1311 lbs) minimum weight limit.

The odd low nose made the car appear old-fashioned.

Outwardly, the car looked a tad dated. Contrary to every other car, the F310 still sported a low nose, a feature which inhibited airflow to the floor of the car and robbed it of potential downforce. John Barnard claimed he had envisioned a high nose for the car at launch, but stated the borderline experimental nature of the car had prevented him from incorporating it right away.

The distinctive high cockpit sides were a direct result of the 1994 tragedies at Imola.

The visual oddities continued along the cockpit, as the car had chunky high-rise cockpit sides. These had been added to adhere to stricter safety standards which had followed after the fatal accident of Ayrton Senna, but Ferrari's version of the system looked particularly cumbersome, especially compared to the contemporary Williams.

The lines from the cockpit sides were drawn all the way to the back of the car, making the airbox looked tacked on. Overall, the car looked really bulky and unwieldy, clearly showing Ferrari was jumping into unexplored territory with the F310. Another extravagant feature were the large squared-off sidepods, which oddly contrasted the rounded body.

Eddie Irvine, test driver Nicola Larini, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo and Michael Schumacher posing with the F310.

Though the car used some old parts, the team would have an entirely new driver lineup for 1996. Both Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi had decided to move to Benetton, while Michael Schumacher was joined by up and coming star Eddie Irvin, who switched from Jordan.

The F310 was first shown in February of 1996, in the attendance of FIAT president Gianni Agnelli, the namesake of the dreadful F92A and F93A. Thankfully, these failures hadn't damaged his resolve, as he enthusiastically expressed his admiration for Michael Schumacher.

"If Ferrari doesn't win with Michael Schumacher, It's solely our fault."

Gianni Agnelli

Schumacher powering ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella's Minardi, Australia 1996.

In spite of the early development woes, the team made it in time for the first race of the season at the brand new Albert Park street circuit near Melbourne, Australia. Not only was it the first time F1 raced at the circuit, it was also the first time the season opened in Australia, an odd coincidence since it had ended in Adelaide the year prior.

Start of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix.

Both Ferraris were on pace during qualifying, which was a single session on Saturday for the first time in F1 history. Eddie Irvine surprisingly lead the charge with 1:32.889, placing third .518 seconds behind the pole-sitting Williams FW18 of rookie Jacques Villeneuve. Michael Schumacher was close behind in 4th with a time of 1:33.125. Though Irvine was able retain his third place, Schumacher had to give up on lap 32, as his brakes had failed.

Michael Schumacher ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Sauber) and Andrea Montermini (Forti), Brazil, 1996.

After the opening round, Ferrari discovered the novel super light titanium composite gearbox was bleeding out transmission fluid, necessitating an emergency switch to the 1995 412T2 unit. The switch required the installment of corresponding suspension components as well, severely hampering the car's aerodynamic performance.

This setup was used at Interlagos, Brazil, where Eddie Irvine slumped to 10th place in qualifying, while Michael Schumacher maintained fourth place. Depressingly, he was a hefty 1.363 seconds behind Damon Hill's Williams. On race day the Ferrari proved to be an unruly, underdeveloped beast, as Schumacher had to battle Sauber's Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jordan's Rubens Barrichello for position during the wet race.

Though Barrichello was actually faster, Schumacher managed to hold the young Brazilian off long enough to force him into a mistake, securing his first podium of the season, though he was a lap behind on the top two. Eddie Irvine followed suit in seventh place, also a lap down.

Michael Schumacher, Autódromo Oscar Alfredo Gálvez 1996.

At Argentina's Autdromo Oscar Alfredo Galvez, Michael Schumacher improved to second place in qualifying, just .252 seconds behind Damon Hill, who was suffering from food poisoning. Eddie Irvine disappointed once again, being stuck at 10th place.

However, the roles were reversed during the race, as Schumacher had to retire with a wing failure on lap 46. Irvine meanwhile was able to continue, and recovered to 5th to score two points.

Williams clearly had the upper hand in the early races.

After Argentina, the problems with the leaking gearbox were finally solved, allowing Ferrari to fit the right transmission and suspension combination. However, Williams continued their dominance at the European Grand Prix, locking out the front row of the Nurburgring's start/finish straight. Michael Schumacher was a painful 1.208 seconds behind pole, further cementing the Williams-Renault combination. Irvine meanwhile improved slightly to 7th.

Just six laps into the race, the F310 showed its bad side once again, as electrical failure bumped Eddie Irvine out of the race. Schumacher's car held together however, and he was able to secure a close second place behind Jacques Villeneuve.

Eddie Irvine, Imola 1996.

At Imola, San Marino, Michael Schumacher achieved his first pole position for Ferrari, narrowly beating out Damon Hill by .215 of a second. Eddie Irvine was some 1.315 seconds behind in 6th, underlining the clear difference in talent between the two Ferrari drivers.

Schumacher was unable to cash in on his qualifying performance though, as Damon Hill snatched away the win. The German still finished second, even after his front-right brake seized completely on the final lap. Irvine on the other hand moved up to fourth.

Michael Schumacher, qualifying on the streets of Monaco, 1996.

Schumacher was able to replicate his qualifying pace on the streets of Monaco, grabbing another pole position by .510 of a second over Damon Hill. Irvine was down in 7th. The race itself almost immediately devolved into pure chaos however, as it started under monsoon conditions.

Despite his wet weather skills, Michael Schumacher was unable to keep his car between the barriers, as he slid off into the barriers at Mirabeau on the opening lap. Eddie Irvine kept going for most of the intensely chaotic race that followed, as cars dropped out left and right.

Eventual race winner Olivier Panis muscling his was past Eddie Irvine, Monaco 1996.

However, he binned the car seven laps before the end, as he spun at the same spot Schumacher had crashed. Though he hadn't suffered race-ending damage, he was collected by Tyrrell's Mika Salo, who was then immediately stuck by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren. All three cars retired, eventually leaving just three cars running. In the end, an ecstatic Olivier Panis took a surprise win for Ligier.

Michael Schumacher, Barcelona 1996.

After the drama of Monaco, it was time for the Spanish Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona. Schumacher qualified third behind the two Williams cars again, while Eddie Irvine placed sixth, .746 seconds behind his teammate.

No one could touch Der Michael that day in Spain.

What followed on that Sunday would go down in history as one of the greatest drives ever seen in Formula One. After mucking up his start and losing the tail of the Williams cars, Michael Schumacher went on one of the greatest recovery drives in history.

While both his teammate and Damon Hill spun off, the storming German chased and caught Jacques Villeneuve for the lead on lap 13, and never looked back. After bagging and tagging the Canadian, he sped off into the distance, clocking laps 3 seconds faster than anyone else.

In the end, he took a dramatically commanding victory, lapping all but two cars in the process. As much as 45.302 seconds separated Schumacher from the second best car, the Benetton B196 of Jean Alesi. After this devastating display of dominance, Michael Schumacher would be known once and for all as "Der Regenmeister" (The Rainmaster).

The updated high-nose F310, Canada 1996.

Ferrari brought the first set of updates for the F310 at the Canadian Grand Prix, with the car finally gaining the high nose John Barnard had promised at launch. Though the car certainly looked a lot better, performance wasn't improved substantially, as Schumacher qualified third behind the Williams team. Eddie Irvine meanwhile qualified fifth.

Trouble found the revamped machine right away though, as Schumacher was unable to set off on the warm-up lap. Fuel pressure problems relegated the German to a 22nd and last starting position, which he took rather slowly.

Irvine was out on the second lap with a peculiar suspension failure, but his teammate kept going. Pestered by brake balance issues, rear vibrations and intermittent loss of power, Schumacher's ordeal was finally over after a driveshaft chose freedom during a pit stop on lap 41.

Qualifying at Magny Cours was again encouraging, as Schumacher took his third pole of the season. Irvine had been in 10th place, but one of the air deflectors on his car was deemed too tall by the scrutineers, leading to his time being annulled. As a result, he started 22nd and last on the grid.

Schumacher looking decidedly miffed with his Ferrari, Magny Cours 1996.

Disaster struck immediately for Ferrari though, as the F310's engine exploded into a cloud of disappointment on the formation lap, much to the chagrin of Michael Schumacher. Eddie Irvine had a similar experience, as his transmission bit the bullet just five laps into the race.

The substantial difference in raw pace between Michael and Eddie continued at Silverstone, as the German qualified 3rd to the Northern Irishman's 10th, with a demoralizing 1.479 seconds between them.

Schumacher's advantage brought him very little though, as he retired just like Irvine did in the very early stages of the race. A hydraulics issue sidelined him on lap 3, while Irvine stuttered to a halt with a broken differential two laps later.

The dismal showing in France was followed up by the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. Michael Schumacher qualified 3rd yet again, while Eddie Irvine had to make do with 8th. A blown engine took Irvine out on lap 24 though, leaving Schumacher to take a distant fourth behind Hill, Alesi and Villeneuve.

Eddie Irvine's engine giving up the ghost.

The Hungaroring saw Schumacher take his fourth pole for Ferrari , just 0.053 seconds ahead of Damon Hill. Irvine improved as well, taking fourth behind the two Williams drivers. The race proved to be a deception once more however, as Eddie Irvine's gearbox seized on lap 31. Some 39 laps later, Michael Schumacher was also sidelined as his throttle linkage failed, leading to him being classified 9th as he had finished 90% of the racing distance.

Schumacher crashed heavily in practice, Spa Francorchamps 1996.

A hefty crash saw Michael Schumacher sidelined for much of Friday Practice at Spa Francorchamps, but the German managed to recover to secure third place in qualifying. Eddie Irvine was ninth. Unexpectedly, Michael managed to convincingly win the race from Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen, while Eddie retired with yet another gearbox problem on lap 29.

Eddie Irvine, Monza 1996.

As had become painfully common, Schumacher qualified third for the 14th round of the season at Monza, the Temple of Speed. Irvine on the other hand placed 7th. The race was a controversial one, as track officials had installed haphazard tire barriers at every chicane to prevent the drivers from abusing the kerbs, as the circuit was undergoing modifications.

Schumacher kissed a tire stack as well in the closing stages but didn't incur any damage.

Inevitably, several incidents saw tires end up on track and cause significant damage. Jean Alesi managed to hit a tire stack inexplicable placed between the two Lesmo corners, sending a tire into the front wing of Mika Hakkinen's McLaren. In a similar incident, Villeneuve took out David Coulthard by sending a tire his way, breaking the Scotsman's suspension and sending him off track.

Schumacher crossing the line to take a popular home victory for Ferrari.

Damon Hill crashed out of a four second lead on lap six after collecting the tire barrier, and example Eddie Irvine followed by crashing out of third place halfway through the race. Even though he made contact with a tire stack, he was able to continue unharmed, and recorded his third victory of the season in front of Jean Alesi and Mika Hakkinen.

Villeneuve vs Schumacher, Estoril 1996.

At the penultimate race of the season held at Portugal's Estoril circuit, Michael Schumacher placed 4th in qualifying. For once, Eddie Irvine wasn't to far behind in 6th. Though Schumacher was once again competitive in the race, he had to concede to Villeneuve and Hill, the former of which pulled off a humiliating outside overtaking maneuver in the final corner while the German was stuck behind Minardi's painfully slow Giovanni Lavaggi. Eddie Irvine brought his car home in 5th.

Start of the final race of the season, Suzuka 1996.

The final race of the at Suzuka, Japan saw Michael Schumacher again grab 4th on the grid, with Eddie Irvine in 6th. For once the race was largely uneventful, as Schumacher finished 3rd ahead of Irvine in 5th.

In the end, the dominant Williams FW18 swept both championships, as Damon Hill placed 1st with 97 points ahead of Jacques Villeneuve with 78, and Michael Schumacher in third with 59. In the process, Damon Hill became the first son of a world champion to become world champion himself.

With the season finally over, Ferrari was finally able to lick its wounds and focus on preparing for next season. The growing pains of 1996 had certainly been taxing, as the ambitious clean sheet design proved reasonably fast, but also unbearably fragile.

The fact Schumacher could extract so much performance from a car even its designer admitted "wasn't very good" is a testament to his virtually limitless talent and dedication. As Eddie Irvine would later recount, Michael had an uncanny ability to go like a bat out of hell with the most terrible of cars, a gift that would sometimes even work against the team as he would miss issues his teammate would trip over in an instant.

"[It was] an awful car, a piece of junk, almost undrivable"

Eddie Irvine.

Technical director John Barnard had been let go mid-season, as Ferrari team boss Jean Todt had ordered him to dissolve his British design office and come back to Italy to make the supply lines much shorter.

Barnard refused, and was consequently replaced by Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, the familiar duo Michael Schumacher had enjoyed working with at Benetton. With their help, Michael and Ferrari would finally be able to properly start building the team into the fantastic tour du force that would utterly dominate the early 21st century