Renault has been involved in several World Championship showdowns over the years, but never have the company’s engineers been so confident before the start of a weekend than they were at Suzuka in 1996 – for the simple reason that both contenders had a Renault V10 in the back of their cars!
In the end Damon Hill scored a memorable race win and beat Williams team Jacques Villeneuve mate to the crown. The Canadian would have to wait another year to claim the title.
Villeneuve arrived in the scene at the start of 1996 on a wave of hype, fresh from his victory in the US Champcar series. After an extensive winter testing programme he justified his presence by taking pole for his very first race in Australia. Hill, recovering from a difficult 1995 F1 season, knew he had a tough contest on his hands. With no other driver offering a consistent challenge, the championship soon developed into a battle between the two Williams drivers.
Villeneuve scored his first victory in the fourth round at the Nurburgring, before adding further successes at Silverstone, the Hungaroring, and Estoril. Hill meanwhile won the first three races in Melbourne, Interlagos and Buenos Aires, before earning more victories at Imola, Montreal, Magny-Cours and Hockenheim.
Despite his superior win rate a few bad weekends cost Hill, and heading into the final race at Suzuka the battle was still open, if only just. Villeneuve was nine points behind, and with 10 available for a victory in those days, he had to win in Japan with Damon not making the top six.
It was a long shot, but it was still a mathematical possibility. And adding a little extra interest to proceedings was the fact that some months earlier Williams had dropped Hill from its 1997 line-up. Thus if he won the title, he would take the number one to his new home at Arrows...
Villeneuve struck the first blow at Suzuka by taking pole, so at least he gave himself the best possible shot at winning the race. However Hill was alongside him on the front row, and the Englishman just had to sit behind his team mate to secure the title.
At the start of the race everything fell into place for Damon. Villeneuve made a bad getaway and dropped to sixth place, and with Hill easing comfortably into the lead, Jacques now had a mountain to climb. He had worked his way up to fourth when he pitted for a second time on lap 33, losing one place.
Unfortunately just four laps after the stop his right rear wheel came adrift and the Williams went sliding off the circuit and out of the race. At that moment, Hill knew he was champion, some two years after he had come so close to beating Michael Schumacher in Adelaide.
Hill was determined to finish the job in style, and after pit stops on lap 18 and 34 he cruised to the flag safely in front of Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, his final margin over Villeneuve boosted to 19 points.
“I never took the view that the championship was going to be a walkover,” said Hill. Right from the start I knew it was going to be close and I had to take as much of an advantage as I could before Jacques got up to speed and got into the swing of things.
“But it could certainly have gone the other way. Jacques could have been champion and I would have been feeling pretty sick. But I know Jacques is going to get another chance. He is still very young and very quick.”
It was a good prophecy, for a year later Villeneuve beat Schumacher to the 1997 title in a rather more stressful contest at Jerez.