Schumacher was, as history can confirm, in it for the long haul at Ferrari, but the team that would become the dominant force of the early 2000s had a mountain to climb at the start of ’96.
This was due to the all-conquering Adrian Newey-designed Williams FW18 driven by eventual champion Damon Hill and rookie contender Jacques Villeneuve.
Ahead of the ’96 Italian GP, Williams had racked up 10 wins (7 for Hill, 3 for Villeneuve) and had already wrapped up the Constructors’ Championship, entering the weekend at Monza with a hefty 149 points. Benetton were second with 55 points and Ferrari sat third on 48 points (it is worth noting the points structure in 1996 was 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1).
Hill led the Drviers’ standings with 81 points, 13 ahead of Villeneuve in second, providing him the chance to wrap up the title from pole position in Monza, having out-qualified the rest of the field by just over three-tenths of a second.
Schumacher was third in the standings ahead of the Italian GP, way adrift of the Williams pairing with a tally of just 39 points. However, the German driver had performed miracles in the largely uncompetitive and by most accounts unattractive F310.
In Spain earlier that year, Schumacher stunned the opposition in the torrential rain to take his first win for Ferrari by a margin of 45 seconds and he’d triumphed for a second time in the round before at Spa-Francorchamps, capitalising on numerous pit-stop errors from Williams.
Schumacher lined up third on the grid at Monza, having qualified five-tenths off of Hill’s pole-sitting pace and both Williams looked to be too much of a challenge for the Ferrari driver to overcome in front of the raucous Italian crowd.
Remarkably, it was Jean Alesi who grabbed the lead by vaulting the front runners in his Benetton from the third row of the grid, whilst Schumacher lost out to the McLaren pairing of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, thus dropping him to sixth.
Hill would soon dispatch Alesi out in front, with Hakkinen passing Villeneuve for third as well heading into the Parabolica.
Tyres that had been placed at Monza’s chicanes to dissuade drivers from straight-lining them would play a huge role in the result.
On Lap 2, Villeneuve clipped the tyres at the Variente Della Roggia chicane, sending one into the path of Coulthard’s McLaren and the Scot retired via the gravel trap as a result. This allowed Schumacher to climb back up to fourth by the end of the second lap.
Hakkinen then hit the tyres and had to pit a lap later for a new front wing, dropping him out of the front running places and elevating Schumacher to third.
But the most dramatic incident with the tyre barriers came on Lap 6. Race leader Hill was distraught after hitting the tyres at Variente Rettifilo and spinning out of the Grand Prix.
This handed the lead back to Alesi, with Schumacher giving chase in second, albeit several seconds behind. But after 16 laps of the race, Schumacher was right on the tail of the Benetton driver and well in contention to take the win.
Schumacher stayed right on the tail of Alesi right the way through to the first round of pit stops, with Alesi electing to pit at the end of Lap 31.
The Ferrari driver responded in typical fashion by punching in two super-quick laps, stopping at the end of Lap 33 and firing out of pit lane to rejoin at the start of the next lap with a near-seven-second lead over the Frenchman.
From there, Schumacher stretched his advantage out in front and not even a late brush with the tyre barrier could stop him from cruising to a commanding 18.265s win.
It would be Schumacher’s third and final win of the ’96 season, but it could arguably be the most special given it was in front of a rampant Italian crowd, with thousands of people swarming on track to watch the German driver take to the top step of the podium in customary Monza fashion.
In the post-race press conference after securing Ferrari’s first win at Monza since 1988, Schumacher said: “To stand in front of those guys in such a crowd is unbelievable.”
With his win in Monza on this day in ’96, Schumacher’s legacy with Ferrari and the Italian fans was well on its way to becoming a legend.
Poetically, Charles Leclerc was also victorious at Monza in Ferrari colours on 8 September 23 years later, bringing an end to the Italian marque’s then nine-year wait for a home win.