This weekend’s season opener, the Australian Grand Prix, is set to be the 19th held at the popular Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. This week, Richland F1’s very own Dan Paddock takes a look back at the very first Formula One Grand Prix held around Albert Park, back in 1996, as F1 enjoyed the bizarre luxury of back-to-back races in Australia.
It had been all change in the off-season between 1995 and 1996, with a swathe of driver changes, as well as a shake up to the rule book, with a change to the start procedure, and the numbering system amongst others, introduced.
On the driver front Michael Schumacher jumped ship to Ferrari, leaving defending champions Benetton to form an all-new line-up with Eddie Irvine at the Scuderia. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger headed in the opposite direction, swapping Maranello for Enstone, for what many considered both drivers best shot at a world title.
At Williams, Jacques Villeneuve, son of the legendary Gilles, joined title favourite Damon Hill, fresh off the back of a IndyCar title and an Indianapolis 500 win. David Coulthard, who had lost his seat to the French-Canadian, headed to McLaren – entering its second year with Mercedes power – to partner Mika Hakkinen, the Finn thankfully fully recovered from the life-threatening injuries he had sustained in his high speed accident in Adelaide, just four months previously.
Further down the grid Martin Brundle joined Rubens Barrichello at Jordan, now sponsored by Benson and Hedges, while the promising Pedro Diniz walked out on Forti, taking his Parmalat money to Ligier to take the seat alongside Olivier Panis.
The Australian Grand Prix itself was all-new for 1996. With the race, which had actually bookended the 1995 season, now the season opener. The city of Adelaide, which had hosted the event from 1985 onwards, was out, with the race instead to be held around Melbourne’s Albert Park.
Come Saturday in Melbourne, it was no surprise to see both of the now sponsorless Forti’s eliminated in the new single hour long qualifying session, failing foul of the new for 1996, 107% rule. Luca Badoer, who had the distinction of driving about every bad car possible in the 90s was 6.8 seconds shy of the session topping time of 1:32.371. While Pacific refugee Andrea Montermini was a further three seconds adrift in the second of the yellow cars. Forti’s weekend in Australia was over.
What few expected though was to see Formula 1 newcomer Jacques Villeneuve top the timesheets, becoming just the third man to take pole on their F1 debut. While the French-Canadian had racked up around 9,000km of testing prior to the season opener, few suspected that he would trouble Damon Hill so early in the season. In fact, Villeneuve would prove to be the Briton’s closer challenger throughout the year.
Hill would line-up alongside the debutant on the front row, while Irvine, Schumacher, Hakkinen and Alesi rounded out the top six on the grid. Both Coulthard and Brundle had a Saturday to forget for their new teams, qualifying 14th and 19th respectively.
On race day, the Tyrrells became the first casualties of the new starting procedure, with both Mika Salo and Ukyo Katayama left on the grid as the five red lights went out. At the front there were no such troubles for Villeneuve, as the French-Canadian converted pole to lead through Turn 1, as behind him first Irvine and then Schumacher swamped Hill, the first of a number of poor starts for the Briton in 1996.
While the leaders safely filed through Turn 3, carnage ensued behind, as Coulthard jinked across the track to avoid Panis’ Ligier. The Scot, in doing so, started a concertina effect, that ended with Martin Brundle launching his Jordan over the rear of the unsighted McLaren, as well as Johnny Herbert’s Sauber. The Jordan speared through the air, landing upside down against the retaining wall, the rear of the car, with engine attached breaking clear of the monocoque.
It was as violent an accident as you are ever likely to see in Formula 1, but as a testament to the safety measures put in place after the death of both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, not even two years previously, Brundle pulled himself clear of the broken Jordan unhurt, if not a little bit shaken.
With debris littered across Turn 3, the red flag was shown, giving Brundle, who was lucky to be in one piece, the opportunity to dash back to the pits for the spare Jordan, soaking up the cheers of the crowd on the way. Meanwhile, McLaren set about strapping Coulthard into the spare MP4-11, despite the car being setup for Mika Hakkinen. However, there was no such luck for Johnny Herbert, as Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had ground to a halt on the parade lap, was given the nod to use the spare Sauber.
The second start proved to be far less dramatic, Villeneuve with another faultless getaway, as Hill this time managed to keep the two Ferraris at bay, Irvine again ahead of Schumacher. While Schumacher was soon promoted to third, Eddie Irvine no doubt heeding the first of many calls that he would receive in his four years at Ferrari to let the German by, the battle for the lead was clearly between the two Williams men.
Villeneuve would lead unchallenged until his first stop on lap 29, with a slow stop by Williams of 17 seconds dropping him to second. Hill would pit for fuel and fresh rubber two laps later, and despite an even slower stop of 18.5 seconds would beat Villeneuve to Turn 1. But the French-Canadian was unfazed, making use of his warmer tyres to pull of an audacious pass around the outside of Hill through Turn 4. A slide across the grass at Turn 1 for Villeneuve a lap later almost handed the lead back to Hill, but the Briton could not find a way past his new team-mate.
Villeneuve seemed poised to pull off a fairytale debut win, but ultimately it was not to be. The French-Canadian was leaking oil, made clear by the stained look of Hill’s closely following car, and on lap 53, on the third time of asking from Patrick Head, Jacques allowed Hill to pass for the lead into Turn 3, a lead that he would not relinquish.
Hill wrapped up back-to-back Australian Grand Prix wins, and in doing so equalled his fathers record of 14 victories. While Villeneuve ended a bittersweet day in second, securing a 1-2 for Williams.
Eddie Irvine rounded out the top three, a distant third on his debut for Ferrari, having survived a mad lunge from Jean Alesi in the Benetton on lap 9 – which ended the French-Sicilian’s race – to make his one and only podium appearance of the year, and one of only six finishes in 1996.
Michael Schumacher, in his first race for Ferrari, had a weekend to forget, having qualified just fourth, seventh tenths adrift of Villeneuve, and behind new team-mate Eddie Irvine. The German’s weekend ultimately ended on lap 32 after a brakes issue caused him to run straight on at Turn 3, following a lengthy pitstop. The double champion had been running third behind Villeneuve and Hill, keeping in touch with the Williams pair early in the race, albeit running a two stop strategy.
Gerhard Berger would finish a lacklustre fourth on his return to Benetton. As alarm bells began to ring around Enstone, with the Austrian’s best lap in the B196 some 1.3 seconds down on Villeneuve’s fastest lap of the race in the similarly Renault-powered Williams.
Mika Hakkinen, who Gerhard Berger had spent much of the race stuck behind after a poor start, came home fifth for McLaren. Despite finishing over a minute and a half behind Hill, it was a special moment for Hakkinen, who just four months earlier had received an emergency tracheotomy at the side of the track in Adelaide, after a sickening accident, which almost cost him his life.
The Finn’s compatriot Mika Salo finished a lapped sixth, as he scored points for a third consecutive race for Tyrrell.
Olivier Panis just missed out on points in seventh, in what would prove to be Ligier’s final Australian Grand Prix, while Frentzen was a disappointing eighth for Sauber.
Ricardo Rosset, making his Formula 1 debut, was a fine ninth, ahead of Pedro Diniz, while Ukyo Katayama, was the last classified runner.
Neither Jordan finished, as Martin Brundle, fresh from his first lap crash, spun on the opening lap of the restarted race, after a botched passing move on Diniz, coincidently at Turn 3, site of his earlier shunt.
Rubens Barrichello had run well early in the race in the sister Jordan, at this stage running a sickly beige livery, rather than the more striking gold number seen later in the season, troubling Hakkinen for fifth before a Peugeot engine failure brought his race to a premature end on lap 29.
David Coulthard was the only other major retiree, the Scot parking the McLaren in the pits on lap 24 after his throttle stuck open.
Despite much trepidation, Melbourne’s first F1 event had been a resounding success, and has continued uninterrupted ever since, producing some thrilling races over the last 19 years.
Back in 1996, while it somewhat disappointingly looked like F1 was set for a year of Williams domination, with Ferrari, Benetton and McLaren a long way off, one thing was absolutely clear. After a certain French-Canadian’s performance, the sport had a new poster boy, and fans had a new hero, and that man was Jacques Villeneuve.
Images courtesy of Jordan F1 Team, MultiMedia Motorsport, Scuderia Ferrari and Williams F1 Team.