The 1996 Formula One World Championship is almost upon us. On March 10th in Melbourne Australia, 11 teams and 22 drivers will attempt to challenge for the 1996 FIA Formula One title at the new Albert Park circuit. This guide is an attempt to rate the chances of each team and driver combination for my readers. Constructor and driver ratings refer not to the very best or worse, but there assumed championship position.
Scuderia Ferrari (1,2)
This year held so much promise for the famous Italian team. However, the John Barnard penned F310 has been having more than it share of teething troubles as can be seen from recent testing. Ferrari's strategy of employing only the best; Jean Todt, Osamu Goto, John Barnard and more recently Michael Schumacher, looks like it has not come together too well over the off-season. The delays in the production of the car coupled with the shear lack of testing have made the teams chances look gloomy.
What more can be said about the twice World Champion. He is without a doubt one of the very best drivers in Formula One today. As he lines up for 1996 with a less than proven F310, Michael may seem, for the first time in a while, as an unlikely championship contender. A race win or two is on the cards.
The talented Irishman makes his debut also for the Scuderia. Eddie was held in high favour last year after holding his own with fellow Jordan team mate Rubens Barrichello. It will be interesting to see how good Eddie really is as he drives whith Schumacher.
Mild Seven Benetton-Renault (3,4)
Benetton returns to the fray minus their lead driver for the first time since 1992. The ex-Ferrari team mates are reunited at Benetton which now flys the Italian banner. Berger and Alesi are expected to be major contenders for the World Championship in 1996 since they will be driving last year's winner. Berger must be nearing the end of his Formula one career which now sees him return to the Benetton team (Berger won Benetton's first ever GP victory).
Finally having broken his "duck" in 1995, Alesi will be looking for the title with both the Benetton and the Renault provided horsepower. The combination may fall short of the Williams-Hill package however.
Always in the shadow of Senna at Mclaren, Berger finally has the opportunity to challenge for the title with a consistent car. Berger is unlikely to beat Alesi on points - thus, his lower rating.
Rothmans Williams-Renault (5,6)
Frank's team returns after a disappointing season last year where they failed to retain the constructors title or even maintain a serious driving title bid. Damon Hill has been retained as well as a new Canadian export, the IndyCar World Series winner Jacque Villeneuve. After the release of the promising FW18 and a successful run of testing, Williams must be both Constructors and Drivers World Championship favourites.
Damon must enter the Championship as the title favourite. With the Williams-Renault combination proving a fast consistent package and Damon's outright speed, it remains to be seen if Damon himself can finally retain some consistency and challenge successfully for the World Championship.
Jacques joins the title race after two seasons competing in IndyCar. Michael Andretti's F1 experience is still fresh in the minds of many, but Jacques has made none of Andretti's mistakes thus far. Jacques has moved to Europe and done a greater amount of testing. That said, it is still very unrealistic to expect Jacques to challenge for the title overnight. With the Williams Renault he should win a race or two before the season ends.
Marlboro Mclaren Mercedes (7,8)
1996 promises to be a critical year for the famous team from Woking with pre-season hints of Marlboro reconsidering their involvement with the team. Apparently, an ultimatum has been handed down for at least one win in 1996. This year the teams chances look a lot brighter, with the recent form in testing of Mika Hakkinen. Mika has impressed with the times he has delivered thus far, and seems to be completely recovered from his horrific Adelaide crash. It remains to be seen how close David Coulthard will get to Mika.
The first of the Mika's has been low on results as of late. However, many choose to cling on to the memories of Estoril Qualifying in 1993 (where he out-qualified the late great Ayrton Senna). With the testing form of Mclaren in recent weeks, a debut Grand Prix win may be on the cards.
Many were surprised to see David leave the Williams camp for Mclaren, some even called Frank's decision short-sighted as David is considered by many as future championship material. However, before Coulthard can reach the highest plane and challenge for the title he must prove this year that he has the ability to finish races.
Equipe Ligier Gauloises Blondes (9,10)
Great things were expected of Tom Walkinshaw's team this year. Walkinshaw was the technical genius behind the Jaguar Sportscars, Benetton (since 1991) and The Volvo challenge in the British Touring Car Championship. Budgetary restraints have hampered the French team's program this year, resulting in Pedro Diniz being brought in with his huge backing. Mugen-Honda engines have been retained, as well as Oliver Panis. Panis disappointed last year, being overshadowed in the team by Martin Brundle. Expect Diniz to disappoint with Oliver Panis providing the majority of results in 1996. Chances of visiting the podium are limited except for another Hockenheim 1994/ Adelaide 1995 incident.
Highly rated driver in 1994 who was disappointing in 1995. Seems to have been retained for the French sponsors.
A driver of questionable talent brought it to supplement the budget. May finally score points in the right situation.
Total Jordan-Peugoet (11,12)
Much was expected of Eddie Jordan's team last year in which the team ultimately failed to deliver on. This year with the latest challenger, the team hopes to stretch itself into a true Grand Prix contender. Peugoet entered Formula One with the intention to succeed, and their lack of results thus far must be beginning to embarrass them. Martin Brundle rejoins Jordan (Martin was 2nd in British Formula 3 with Eddie Jordan's Team) alongside Jordan regular Rubens Barrichello. Jordan will have a chance for a win this year... if some of the major players fall.
A veteran Grand Prix campaigner who has never enjoyed the success of a top line drive. Strong in the race, but some weakness in the qualifying stakes. May be the "stronger" to the sometimes "lax" Barrichello.
Barrichello impressed many in 1993 and 1994. A stunning drive at Donington Park brought many accolades, as well as his pole at Spa in 1994. Rubens achieved very little in 1995; while scoring more points than Eddie Irvine, he was not held in high regard. Barrichello's attitude in the past with regards to testing has been the subject of much criticism.
Red Bull Sauber-Ford (14,15)
Sauber is using the new Zetec R V10 this year after a disappointing season with the 3.0 Litre V.8 version of the engine which propelled Michael Schumacher to the 1994 drivers title. The Ford motorsport bosses have said that they expect one or two wins this year. With Sauber losing the works engine to the new Stewart F1 team in 1997, The team will be eager to prove a point. Herbert moves across from Benetton, which should ultimately lead to a comparison between Schumacher and the very highly rated Frentzen. Frentzen should easily dominate this driver combination. The race wins are possible, but not expected. More frequent visits to the podium are in the cards.
Johnny was, in the opinion of many, the fastest of the current crop of British drivers. However, as many choose to comment; " There are two outstanding Drivers in Formula One at the moment, and they are both German" . It is hard to see Herbert posing a serious threat to Frenzten's dominance at Sauber.
The find of the last two seasons returns with Sauber - which will hopefully be a car worthy of his talent. If Sauber has the chance to win, expect Frentzen to grab the opportunity.
The Hart engine was considered a good catch in 1995 after the success that Jordan had with Brian's wonderful V10 in 1994. The V8 version used in 1995 was not as successful and the team was hampered by two paying drivers in Taki Inoue and Max Papis. This year shows more promise for Arrow. Jos Verstapphen, the talented young driver who made it to Formula One after only two seasons of previous motor racing, is the new team leader. Ex-F3000 Super Nova driver Ricardo Rosset makes his F1 debut with Arrows this season.
Jos is a clearly talented young driver who lacks experience. The best performing team mate of Michael Schumacher in 1994 returns after a frustrating experience with Simtek in 1995. Jos has the potential to turn in a best ever season with Arrows.
Ricardo was team mate to the European F3000 champion Vincenzo Soprisi last year, but Ricardo was much higher rated by many. He will be an interesting team mate to Verstapphen. Ricardo may spring a surprise or two.
Tyrrell had a disastrous 1995 season. Showing flashes of brilliance in the first two South American races, then enduring another embracing season. The new Yamaha and interim car transformed their package and the team is talking about podiums for this season. That said, it is difficult to see Tyrrell challenging Jordan or Sauber for the Constructors Championship.
The second Mika is another excellent graduate of Japanese F3000, a formula that has produced many great Grand Prix drivers over the last few years. After his mediocre rookie year expect much better results this time. Mika was rumoured to have turned down the number 2 seat at Ferrari for this drive.
"Ukyo-San" suffered last year after an impressive 1994 where he easily beat Mark Blundell. Ukyo should not be expected to beat Salo, but he will be a lot closer to him this year.
The small Italian team that has been the most competitive of the Customer Ford for the last few years returns again. Chances for the team look not so bright with the 107% rule looming on the horizon. What is new this year are the lack of Italian drivers, opting for a Portuguese/Japanese combination. Pedro Lamy will be the only hope of points for the team with Taki Inoue an unlikely qualifier.
After scoring Minardi's sole point for 1995, Pedro returns as team leader. A sometimes impatient driver who would find more favour with the other drivers in the paddock if he were more willing to give way to faster drivers.
What can be said about Taki. Short on skill, big on backing. It will be a major event to see Taki on the grid at most of the races this year.
Forti Corse-Ford (22,23)
Forti Corse show some promise as they are running the ex-Sauber Zetec R V8's. The main problem is the fact their new car is not expected until approximately 3 races into the season. An interim car has been developed to handle the change in engine. The Zetec R may provide Forti the ability to escape the 107% barrier, but the loss of Pedro Diniz has cost them dearly in sponsorship.
Andrea is something of a dark horse. Rated well by Michael Schumacher when Andrea was a test driver for Benetton, he has not yet had the equipment to prove himself. It is very unlikely that this year will yield the opportunity to shine.
Another Italian driver who has found himself out of favour in Formula One. The ex F3000 champion will be keen to show his talent, but will be hampered like many by the traps of the tail of the field.
These are my predictions for 1996. I thank you for the support over the past months and look forward to your continued readership over the coming Formula One season.