1996 was an interesting year. Could Michael retain the title and make it three in a row for only the second time in the history of Formula 1? How well would ‘rookie’ (though 1995 IndyCar World Series Champion) Jacques Villeneuve, and more importantly, how well would Damon Hill do? Would he win the championship? Would he keep his Williams drive?
There seemed to be more worries during the season off the track than on it! Despite little pre-season testing, the two Ferraris occupied the second row in Melbourne, with Eddie Irvine becoming only the third driver to outqualify Michael (each doing so only once). However, the car was not fully sorted and ran several of the early races with parts from the ’95 car in the interests of reliability. Still, Michael ran remarkably close to the lead in Argentina, Nürburgring and Imola, with Nürburgring being a highlight as he pushed Villeneuve hard for 2/3 of the race. Then came Monaco and the meeting with the Armco… Barcelona was the exact opposite, as Michael absolutely demolished the opposition, with a fastest lap more than 2 seconds faster than anyone elses! Unfortunately this was followed by a period of unreliability, the worst being the engine detonating on the warm-up lap of the French Grand Prix, after Michael had managed to set pole! Finally at Spa and Monza things turned better, as he won both races, with the tifosi going beserk for the first Ferrari victory at Monza since 1988. A third, and then second at the final race rounded off a reasonably successful year – not as successful as some hoped, but as successful as could be expected in the circumstances.
1997 was both a success and a failure. A success, with Michael nearly winning the title, but a failure in the end when it was not realised (and also the way the battle ended). After up and down early season form, which netted Michael two second places and a fifth, Michael drove a dominating race in a wet Monaco to take the Championship lead. Barcelona was a poor race (for a change), but Michael then won the next two races, having a little bit of luck in Montreal. Then at Silverstone, while leading (partly due to a problematic pit-stop for Villeneuve), a wheel bearing failed. A second at home, followed by a tyre-chewing fourth in Hungary, had Michael in a position where a good run by Villeneuve would see the championship head Jacques’ way. At Spa, however, this was not to be, as Michael proved his superiority in a wet-dry race, winning by almost half a minute. Monza saw little change to the situation, however Austria and Luxembourg saw Jacques’ chances rise as he took two wins while Michael finished sixth in Austria (thanks to a yellow flag infringement) and was damaged beyond repair in a first corner incident at Luxembourg (involving the two Jordans). A strange race at Suzuka, as Jacques held the field up after being suspended due to a multiple yellow flag violation, only for Jacques to be overtaken by Irvine. Michael then got through on Jacques (just!) at the first pit stops, with Eddie handing over to Michael, with Eddie running interference (literally). Michael went on to take the win, leaving him in the lead (just!) as they entered the last race.
After everyone overcame the shock of the first three drivers qualifying with the same lap time, the race started, with Michael holding a slim but ‘safe’ lead over Jacques. Just after both drivers seconds pit stops, however, Jacques closed in, with Jacques making a late dive at Dry Sack corner. Michael, partly surprised, first turned away, then turned in, the two cars touching. Michael finished in the gravel, while Jacques continued on to take the championship.
Despite 5 wins, the year would be remembered by many people not for the fight for the title but instead for the incident at Jerez. Despite the incident however, Michael’s drives during the year, particularly at Monaco and Spa showed he was still the one to beat.

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