1996: The shape of things to come

Motor Racing: Season of complex rivalries in prospect
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The Independent Online
Winters of hype and hope tend to come round with greater frequency than summers of spectacle and fulfilment. This close season, however, Formula One may have good reason to believe it has a classic championship to wake up to. The title contest usually comes down to a duel, often it is reduced to a procession. For 1996, five drivers from three teams can be considered genuine contenders.

Williams-Renault present Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, Benetton- Renault have Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, and Ferrari flaunt the undisputed Grand Master, Michael Schumacher. Ferrari also enter Eddie Irvine, but since he is apparently being paid handsomely to be a No 2, it is reasonable to assume he will not be required to figure directly in the championship equation.

Of the five, only Hill is working in familiar surroundings. He will again probably have the best car and will probably have his best chance to become champion. He needs, above all, to steer clear of unnecessary confrontation. Villeneuve, winner of the last IndyCar series, is said to have the talent, temperament and ambition to give Hill further domestic complications, but the Englishman's experience of Formula One and Williams' modus operandi ought to give him the edge over the 24-year-old French Canadian.

Alesi and Berger are old sparring partners and provide Benetton with a two-pronged attack after loading all their ammunition on Schumacher. It is a huge challenge for the team to emerge from the shadow of the German, and Alesi especially, it seems, is eager to haul them into the sunlight.

Schumacher contends he cannot aspire to a third consecutive championship, that it will take the new package, including a V10 engine, until 1997 to generate a genuine title challenge. But such are his powers and galvanising qualities he should not be overlooked and Hill, for one, is not about to make that mistake.

Elsewhere, McLaren-Mercedes will be under pressure to step forward from the supporting cast, although the days of topping the bill may still be some way off. Jordan-Peugeot will also be anxious to earn a few accolades after a spell of relative anonymity.

PREDICTION: Hill's chance for the championship of his life.