After 11 races as the season closer on the streets of Adelaide in South Australia, the Australian Grand Prix took up the mantle of season-opener and moved to the super-fast Albert Park circuit in Victoria’s capital city of Melbourne for 1996.
MAR 10th 2017
On this day in... 1996
And it was Williams’ Damon Hill, the man who’d taken the final win in Adelaide by a whopping two laps, who kickstarted his ’96 campaign with a win in Melbourne.
But the Englishman would face a surprise or two on his way to 10 points aboard the Renault V10-powered FW18, not least in the shape of his new team-mate and Formula 1 rookie Jacques Villeneuve.
The French-Canadian joined Williams as reigning IndyCar Series Champion, having won the Indianapolis 500 en route to the title. The son of 1980s Ferrari super-hero Gilles Villeneuve was highly rated, but no-one knew for certain how he’d fare in F1. When he took pole position Down Under first time out, any remaining doubters were silenced once and for all.
After pipping Hill to top spot on the grid by a tenth of a second, Villeneuve nailed his first start to take an immediate lead, minding his own business out front while Hill had an oversteery moment in the middle of Turn 1 that allowed Ferrari newboy Eddie Irvine, who’d outqualified his illustrious double world champion and fellow Maranello new recruit Michael Schumacher, to move into second.
And then, down at Turn 3, all hell broke loose in the midfield as Martin Brundle, starting what would be his final season with Jordan, collided with the McLaren of David Coulthard and was launched into a terrifying barrel roll from which he emerged unscathed.
All the commotion, during which Brundle received cheers from the crowd as he ran back to the pits to jump into the spare Jordan, meant Villeneuve would have to do it all again at the restart.
True to form, he beat Hill off the line once again, this time staying out front until his pitstop at the halfway mark. The number 5 Williams assumed the lead only to make its stop a few laps later. Crucially, it seemed, Hill came out of the pits on fresh rubber just ahead of Villeneuve, the pair engaging in a furious scrap as Villeneuve tried to take advantage of Hill’s not-quite-up-to-temperature Goodyear slicks.
The rookie racer made a move stick soon after but almost threw it away again with a grassy moment. Undeterred, he hung on ahead of the man who’d finished runner-up in the Drivers’ Championship in the past two seasons.
It looked like history would be rewritten as Villeneuve reeled off the laps. Not since the 1961 French Grand Prix, when Giancarlo Baghetti won for Ferrari at Reims, had a debutant won a World Championship GP.
Sadly, though, an oil leak would shatter Villeneuve’s dream, as the tell-tale smoke from the #6 Williams and the increasingly stained machine of the pursuing Hill hinted. Just eight laps from the end, Villeneuve moved his ailing car over to let Hill past to take victory. Slowing sufficiently to nurse the car home, mindful of the gap back to third-placed Irvine, Villeneuve secured his maiden podium spot and earned himself a new global fanbase who followed his exploits all the way to the final race of the year in Japan, where he was still in with a shout of the title…
Australian GP, 1996
1. Damon Hill (GB) – Williams FW18-Renault, 58 laps
2. Jacques Villeneuve (CDN) – Williams FW18-Renault, +38.020s
3. Eddie Irvine (GB) – Ferrari F310, +1m02.571s
4. Gerhard Berger (A) – Benetton B196-Renault, +1m17.037s
5. Mika Häkkinen (FIN) – McLaren MP4-11-Mercedes, +1m35.071s
6. Mika Salo (FIN) – Tyrrell 024-Yamaha, +1 lap
Images courtesy of LAT
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