The opening round of the 1996 Formula 1 Grand Prix season was held in Australia at the new Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, the event replacing the usual season finale at Adelaide that ran between 1986 and 1995.
Ahead of the season, 1995 World Champion Michael Schumacher switched from the Benetton team to Ferrari, where Eddie Irvine, who moved from Jordan, joined him in a completely brand new line-up. They replaced Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, who both switched to Benetton-Renault.
Jacques Villeneuve was brought into the Williams-Renault team alongside Damon Hill, with David Coulthard switching from Williams to McLaren-Mercedes to partner Mika Hakkinen.
There were a few new rules implemented for the ’96 season, with the 107% rule coming in for the first time, as well as the introduction of a solitary qualifying session on Saturday to replace the long-standing two sessions.
The Renault-powered Williams team dominated the first qualifying session of the season, with debutant Villeneuve taking pole ahead of Hill by 0.138s. The Ferrari duo were the only drivers to be within a second of the pole time, with Irvine qualifying ahead of Schumacher, while Hakkinen and Alesi filled row three.
The Forti-Ford team were the first to fall foul of the new 107% rule, when both Luca Badoer and Andrea Montermini failed to get under the 1m38.837s cut off mark.
The race on Sunday started of in dramatic fashion, when Martin Brundle crashed heavily in his Jordan after being launched off the back of Coulthard’s McLaren and Johnny Herbert’s Sauber. The Jordan broke in two such was the ferocity of the crash, and it brought out the red flags.
Brundle and Coulthard were able to restart in their spare cars, but Herbert missed out due to team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen already being in it after stopping on the initial warm-up lap with a technical fault.
The race when it eventually started was also dominated by the Williams duo, with Villeneuve leading confidently away in his first Grand Prix. Hill never let the Canadian driver escape, but the Briton could not find a way passed. He thought he had managed it through the pit stops, but Villeneuve showed good fighting abilities to re-pass Hill before the end of the Briton’s out lap.
Unfortunately it was not to be for Villeneuve, as the tell tale signs of an issue started to appear on Hill’s car as the Briton’s car started to get covered by oil coming from the back of the Canadian’s car. Villeneuve was forced to back off and allow Hill to take over the lead, and eventually the Briton won by almost forty seconds as Villeneuve controlled his pace to allow him to cross the line.
Such was the pace advantage of the Williams, Villeneuve still managed to maintain second, with third place going to Irvine, over a minute adrift of Hill. Berger was fourth ahead of Hakkinen, while Mika Salo took sixth and the final point on offer for Tyrrell-Yamaha.
Noticeable retirements included Schumacher, who retired on lap 32 with a brake issue, while Coulthard retired even earlier in the spare car with a throttle problem on lap 24.
Australia was the first opportunity to see what new Williams driver Villeneuve could do after moving from winning the 1995 IndyCar championship, and he didn’t disappoint as he followed in the footsteps of his legendary father Gilles Villeneuve. It would be a sign of things to come, with Hill not having it all his own way in the team he had been racing for since 1993.
1996 Australian Grand Prix Race Result (Top 10)
|1||5||Damon Hill||GBR||Williams-Renault||58 Laps|
|6||19||Mika Salo||FIN||Tyrrell-Yamaha||+1 Lap|
|7||9||Olivier Panis||FRA||Ligier-Mugen-Honda||+1 Lap|
|8||15||Heinz-Harald Frentzen||GER||Sauber-Ford||+1 Lap|
|9||16||Ricardo Rosset||BRZ||Footwork-Hart||+2 Laps|
|10||10||Pedro Diniz||BRZ||Ligier-Mugen-Honda||+2 Laps|