In the 1995 season Williams had the best car in the field, the FW17 proving the troubles the team had encountered in 1994 with the FW16 following the banning of active suspension were well and truly behind them.
The only problem for Williams was that in Michael Schumacher Benetton clearly had the best driver in the field. Over the course of the season leading up to the Italian Grand Prix Schumacher had won 6 races compared to only 3 for Williams Damon Hill, with Jean Alesi taking a sole win for Ferrari in Canada after problems had affected the Williams and Benettons, and Schumacher’s Benetton team mate Johnny Herbert taking his maiden win in Britain.
Despite that win at the British Grand Prix, Herbert was surplus to requirements at Benetton, with the team moving to bring in Alesi and Berger for 1996 to replace the departing Schumacher. Herbert had been comprehensively outpaced by Schumacher all season, and even his British victory was regarded as fortuitous as Hill and Schumacher retired after colliding and Coulthard encountered electrical trouble which would cause him to speed in the pit lane and drop back after being penalised. Within the team Schumacher was clearly treated as the number one, and Herbert was keen to show that he still had a future in Formula One, and that in an equal environment he could still deliver – but would he get a chance for 1996?
David Coulthard took pole position for Williams, half a second clear of Schumacher. Hill was back in fourth place, sandwiched by the Ferrari’s of Berger and Alesi. Herbert could only qualify eight, almost a second and a half down on his team mate. On race day, Coulthard went off track on the formation lap, running wide at the exit of the Variante Ascari and spinning his Williams in the gravel trap! At the start, Schumacher, now at the front of the field, held the lead from the two Ferrari’s, with Herbert having made a great start to climb to fourth ahead of Hill. But the race would be red flagged after Max Papis spun his arrows at the Variante Ascari, triggering a chain reaction which saw cars stranded across the track. This would forgive Coulthard’s earlier mistake at the same corner and allow the Scot to take the restart from pole position in the spare Williams, after a very cautious warm up lap!
Coulthard led cleanly away from the restart, with Berger getting the jump on Schumacher, followed by Hill, Herbert and Alesi. Alesi got a better run around the Parabolica to pass Herbert at the end of the first lap, and Rubens Barichello’s Jordan soon followed through, as did Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren a few laps later, with Herbert dropping back as he was running a heavier fuel load than his rivals. After withstanding early pressure from Berger, Coulthard started to edge away, and looked set to deliver his first career victory, but would be denied when his car spun off into the gravel on lap 14 after having built up a lead of 3 seconds over the chasing Ferrari, a wheel bearing failure this time at fault. This saw Berger leading for Ferrari, with Schumacher and Hill lurking behind, with Alesi in the second Ferrari keeping pace, before a gap back to Barrichello. Everything seemed to fall into place for another great home result for Ferrari when Hill collided with Schumacher on lap 23, spinning them both out of the race. Hill got distracted while lapping Taki Inoue’s Arrows, who was moving off line after being passed by Schumacher, and Hill felt Schumacher also braked earlier than usual. Schumacher was furious, running from his beached car to confront Hill, having to be restrained by the marshals on the scene. The stewards ultimately agreed with the German world champion and blamed Hill, with the Williams driver handed a suspended 1 race ban.
Berger pitted first of the front runners, which caused him to drop behind Alesi after the stops as he lost time scrapping with Barrichello and Hakkinen when he rejoined, as both cars were light on fuel and yet to stop. Alesi came in next, followed by Barrichello, then Hakkinen, with Herbert running a couple of laps longer than any, and enjoying a stint as race leader in the process. Herbert put his foot down in this phase, and took full advantage of his lightening fuel load to put in fast laps while his rivals drove around on full tanks, so much so that he leapfrogged Hakkinen and Barrichello when he finally made his stop. So now Alesi led from Berger, with Herbert up to third. Alesi and Berger circulated in close formation at the front of the race, pulling clear of Herbert, but Ferrari’s dream result would turn into a nightmare on the 33rd lap when the onboard camera on Alesi’s car would detach, flying backwards into the suspension of Berger’s closely following Ferrari. Berger was lucky not to have been hit by the flying camera, but his race was run, the Ferrari limping off the side of the track. Things would go from bad to worse for the Scuderia, as Alesi started to struggle, flames visible from his rear wheel, as Herbert continued to apply the pressure. The gap was down to 5 seconds with 8 laps to go when Alesi had to retire after pulling into the pits, a failed wheel bearing denying him a victory at his last appearance at Monza for Ferrari. The race was Herbert’s and he continued on to the finish to collect his second Grand Prix win, just four races after securing his first in Britain.
Herbert had a comfortable 18 seconds margin to second place Mika Hakkinen, with Heinz Harald Frentzen taking both his and Sauber’s first podium by coming home third, after the unfortunate Rubens Barrichello was side-lined with a clutch problem. Herbert had definitely put himself in the shop window, and he would be rewarded by being signed to driver for Sauber for the following season, his high profile from his Grand Prix wins helping swing the decision over which driver to partner Frentzen in his favour.