June 2, 1996, Barcelona.
When Schumacher left Benetton Renault to sign for Ferrari, nobody underestimated the size of the task at hand, as he was effectively signing for a sleeping giant. In his first few tests in the 1995 model, he was 2 seconds faster than the speed of the car throughout the previous season. That was about as good as it gets for the next few months though.
The 1996 F310, the V-10 powered Ferrari was a disappointment. It was nowhere a match for the speed of the Williams-Renault plus it was difficult to handle. And the fellow Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine claimed the car was impossible to drive. After the first 6 races of the season, Schumi only had 16 points and Hill in the Williams was running away with the Championship.
And then came the race which till date marks as one of the best amongst the 91 – The 1996 Spanish Grand Prix.
Schumacher qualified third, behind the Renaults of Hill and Villeneuve. On Sunday, it was raining cats and dogs and that’s when Schumi decided to tweak his strategy. He started the race on full wets but with a light tank. In rain, usually racers prefer to go for a heavier fuel load to balance the cars but Michael took a risk.
He stalled at the start and was down to 9th after the first corner. He recovered and was 6th by the end of Lap 1. And then the Michael magic began. The wet track took its first victim from the top 6 as Irvine in 5th spun off, Hill from first ran into the grass and Schumi benefited. In the 5th lap, he gained another spot by overtaking Berger. He was gaining more than 2 seconds on the top two. In lap 9, he went ahead of Alesi, and a lap later on the same corner, he was ahead of Villeneuve and into the lead.
Once in the clear, he started posting phenomenal times. By lap 15 he was ahead by almost 15 seconds, and had posted the fastest lap of the race which at that time was a full 4 seconds quicker than Villeneuve and even at the end of the race was still over 2 seconds quicker than anyone else.
His engine started sounding different in Lap 18, but he continued. He then, eventually, came in for his first pitstop in lap 24 and was still 25 seconds ahead of the pack when he rejoined. The engine continued giving trouble and Schumi later stated that he was never on full power. But still at the end of his second stop in lap 42, he was over a minute ahead of everyone else. He eased off a little and finished the race with a 45-second lead – the only two drivers he didn’t lap were the ones who finished with him on the podium.
Only a different strategy couldn’t explain this huge performance gap. Michael was driving a totally different line on the track compared to other drivers. On a dry track most drivers hesitate to take anything but the traditional racing line, and here Michael was doing it on a wet track!
The race was one out of 17 wet rains Michael won, out of a total of 30 he contested in. It would go a long way in justifying the nickname “Regenmeister” (Rain God) that Michael was given by his adoring fans.