Certainly, one of the most exciting things in Formula 1 is racing in mixed conditions. The balancing act of rain and a wet track with eventual sun and a drying track has led to some of the greatest moments in the history of the sport. The 1982 Monaco Grand Prix, the 2000 German Grand Prix and Sao Paulo showdowns in 2008 and 2012 are just a handful of the legendary races with changing weather conditions that have earned appreciation by fans and experts alike.
Given that the Autódromo José Carlos Pace was just mentioned for two legendary championship deciders only five seasons apart, it may come as a surprise that it also was home for one of, if not the least entertaining mixed weather Formula 1 race of all time. Yet, that unfortunately is the truth.
Meet the XXV Grande Prêmio do Brasil, held on 31 March, 1996.
The wet conditions were certainly welcomed by the supermajority of the Formula One field as the Renault-powered Williams FW18 had proven unstoppable in the season opener in Australia as well as qualifying on Saturday. Well, almost unstoppable. Driving at his home track, the future Circuito Nova Schin Stock Car Brasil champion Rubens Barrichello pulled out one of the better laps of his life to get the Jordan-Peugeot up into second position and ended up being the only driver within a second of polesitter Damon Hill.
The Brit was looking for a historic victory in Interlagos: it would be his fifteenth, surpassing his father Graham Hill. The wet circuit would probably give others at least a theoretical fighting chance, even if Damon Hill himself was a gifted wet weather driver, as his stylish victory at the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix proved.
It turned out not to be. While Jean Alesi managed to become a blip on his radar in the middle stages of the Grand Prix, Hill was never seriously threatened and came home for an easy victory, lapping everyone but the aforementioned Alesi (and that was despite the fact that Hill waited an eternity to lap Schumacher in fourth because he did not want to interfere in a battle between Barrichello and Schumacher for position).
Now, instead of going through the race lap-by-lap, the author will prove his claim simply by going through the various ways a race in mixed weather is thrilling and then demonstrate how these factors simply were not present or only featured in a short amount of time.
So, what are the factors that can make this type of race entertaining?
Mixing up the order?
Obviously mixed conditions allow underdogs to excel. Giancarlo Fisichella’s second place at the 1997 Belgian Grand Prix and Vitaly Petrov’s fifth place at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix are just two examples worth mentioning, but there are many more. However, the 1996 Brazilian Grand Prix had no chance of delivering on that front.
As had been mentioned earlier, Damon Hill was never seriously threatened. In fact, there was a good chance we could have seen a Williams 1-2, the most common result of the 1996 season, for Williams as Jacques Villeneuve was only being passed by Jean Alesi when he spun out of the race.
The podium finishers are the joint-18th most common podium trio in Formula 1 history (although in the interest of fairness, that only amounts to five combinations of Alesi, Hill and Schumacher), so they really did not have anything interesting going on for them outside of being both Alesi’s and Schumacher’s first podium finishes for their new teams (Alesi would add twelve more for Benetton; Schumacher would have 115 more podium finishes for Ferrari).
Even beyond the money end of the grid, there is only one driver who achieved their season-best result in this race: Mika Salo, who “merely“ had his joint season-high P5 (achieving the same result only six weeks later at the chaotic Monaco Grand Prix). With eleven finishers, one can reasonably expect more cars to achieve their best finish and be it just backmarkers that survive where others drop out.
Even during the race, drivers were rarely out of their expected position with the sole exception of Rubens Barrichello (more on that later), with two exceptions: Jos Verstappen in the Footwork and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Sauber, who were punching well above the weight of their cars (they were 7th and 6th respectively at the time of their retirement with many bigger names still running). However, both of those two would retire from the race just after the halfway mark and neither had their season-high position at this race either.
Of course one factor in which the idea of rain being the great equaliser comes into play is that it emphasises driver talent and usually rewards the daring but skilled and punishes the daring but unskilled drivers. Overtaking in these conditions can both be a great challenge, but also make for some of the most exciting manoeuvres in the history of the sport. Vettel sliding in at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix to take Hamilton’s championship-clinching position as well as Button’s sublime pass on Vettel on lap 13 of the 2011 Hungarian Grand Prix are just a handful of the many great moves seen in intermediate conditions.
Well, as has been established, there was little change in the usual running order of 1996, so less room for drivers to flash their potential as overtakers. Regardless, the racing line formed pretty clearly and overtakes on the wetter patch were just not on the cards for any driver. The one that made the most attempts was the aforementioned Rubens Barrichello. Eagerly, and usually to the excitement of his home crowd, he tried more than once to pass the drivers in front of him: in the opening stages, his battle was with Jean Alesi and in the final stages, he entered conflict with future teammate Michael Schumacher.
Yet with every lap, one could predict how it would go. Coming out of Junção, Barrichello would use the slipstream to creep up to the driver ahead, dive into turn 1, get on the wet part of the surface and lack the grip to make the move stick. It was predictable like a mediocre motorsport comedy routine. While he was not the only driver to experience this phenomenon, his earnestness in continuously attempting that move and getting the same result was both endearing and quite silly.
There were undoubtedly a few good moves, such as Jean Alesi getting the jump on Jacques Villeneuve. However, that move also was quite a good demonstration why there was little overtaking all-in-all: with the gravel trap that was in style at the time, the second major overtaking spot at Descida do Lago was too risky. Villeneuve flew off and he merely had to leave Alesi room.
So when one spot is too wet to make an overtake stick and the other spot is too risky to attempt a move, it does not take a genius to understand that there will be little movement on the track. Of course, these are not the only ways a mixed weather race can be appealing. Let us take a look at one more, some might say most sophisticated, option:
The right call in mixed conditions can make you a hero; the wrong call can make you Reject of the Race. Toyota’s famous choice to stay out near the end of the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix both nearly altered the championship decision and would have almost gotten Timo Glock up two positions in the dying stage of the race. In contrast, Mika Häkkinen lost a good chance of really taking control of the 1999 world championship by going on wet tyres too fast at the famous 1999 European Grand Prix. So even in weather-affected races where passing is lacking, this can be a very interesting factor. Unfortunately, that was not the case here.
With few exceptions most teams had fuelled their car to the brink and just waited for the track to dry out enough to make the switch to dry tyres. Among those who were forced into a two-stopper on account of lacking the required fuel, none of the upper-field drivers went out of their way to try something different. The backmarkers that did got no rewards out of it; it was very clear that there was no chance of those strategies working and the efforts were mostly motivated by the need to do anything to change their fortunes (comparable to Sebastian Vettel’s attempt at last year’s Turkish Grand Prix).
With a very strict cutoff and no additional rain, one could argue that expecting spicy strategies is unreasonable, but the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix had proven only four years earlier that races with only one change in the conditions can still offer some spice in terms of choices made and can allow strategists and drivers with high track intelligence to shine.
So with the highbrow option also out, there is only one last way for a mixed-weather race to stand out: the lowbrow option.
Rain equals chaos is one of the earliest lessons any Formula One fan learns in the community. The start of the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix alone is a masterclass of that lesson, as is the mayhem of the closing stages of the 1982 Monaco Grand Prix. On first instinct, one might be inclined to point out that the 1996 Brazilian Grand Prix at least delivered on that promise: after all, only half the grid went on to actually finish the race. Yet, looking at the details prove that number to not really be representative of the mayhem actually happening on track.
First off, of the eleven retirements, four were technical failures where the car simply ended up parked in a garage to little fanfare. The most interesting story in this was Gerhard Berger, who actually had never driven the B196 in wet conditions before. Any risk of a big crash implied by this fact was offset by Berger’s impressive wealth of experience in Formula 1, which meant that he could carefully get used to the car before the technical issue forced him out of the Grand Prix.
This leaves seven drivers who, according to old official results, “spun off”. Tarso Marques and Ricardo Rosset opened what would be a terrible Sunday for the Brazilian Formula 1 community by spinning off early. Since Marques was last when he retired on the opening lap and Rosset was an also-ran as well, this left little impact on proceedings. Neither even went out at a particularly risky place, so not even a safety car was deployed.
On lap 26, outside of the aforementioned Gerhard Berger, Andrea Motermini spun off. That one was not even noticed by the cameras, as Jacques Villeneuve had his race-ending spin as the consequence of having to leave Alesi room. It is hard to blame him for that, and outside of eliminating a top driver, it was not really a particularly noteworthy incident either. If the topic is rookie mayhem at Interlagos, Juan Pablo Montoya’s accident with Jos Verstappen in 2001 is a much more dramatic story.
David Coulthard followed, but after a miserable Saturday, he spent the entire race running behind drivers like Pedro Diniz and Ukyo Katayama, who were never even close to points, so his spin was quite dramatic, but also completely irrelevant. McLaren’s hopes were always just with Mika Häkkinen on this day. If anything, the worst thing about Coulthard retiring was that he apparently overheated the Mercedes-Benz engine trying to get back into the race; Ron Dennis cannot have appreciated the extra cost.
This leaves only the two Jordan-Peugeot drivers, who went out on laps 59 and 65 respectively. Barrichello spun out of fourth in the same spot Villeneuve retired. Outside of freeing up a spot in the points that Olivier Panis gladly inherited, this one is mostly interesting for the question of whether that retirement was driver-induced or not. Barrichello did the “pass into turn 1, fail to make it stick” routine on Schumacher and then spun off, seemingly out of nowhere. Given his teammate’s car would also be beached soon thereafter, Dr. Jonathan Palmer’s theory that the car had a technical issue might have some merit. Most pundits, including Murray Walker, assessed the incident to be a driver error but for obvious reasons it was difficult to find official statements from Jordan and Barrichello on this. Even that little bit of intrigue, however, is not really worth spending any time thinking about.
With the “checklist” of a great mixed condition race not even remotely filled out, it is clear that the 1996 Brazilian Grand Prix is among the worst mixed weather races of all time. Sometimes, a race is let down not so much by what it has than what it has not. There is no reason to think about the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1996, or re-watch the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1996. If this would not amount to admitting that the author wasted his and the reader’s time, he would also write that there is no real reason to write about the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1996.
“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” noted Oscar Wilde in the wit he was known for. When it comes to whether to expect an entertaining race, this quote rings true. Rain can be a beautiful thing in motorsport, but it does not guarantee a good race, nor does it necessarily save a bad one by arriving early or late. It would only take two Grands Prix after the Brazilian Grand Prix to have two of the most historic wet weather races of all time in succession, but every time we think of Barcelona 1996 or Monaco 1996, we may want to recall the Brazilian Grand Prix of the same year, look at other rain-affected non-races like the 1991 Australian Grand Prix and the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix and realise that it’s not the weather that makes a legendary race.
Sources: BBC, formula1.com, grandprix.com, Statsf1.com
Image sources: Pixabay, Rick Dikeman (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, resized)