Flashback: Australia 1996 - Villeneuves superb debut 12 Mar 2013
Ahead of the 2013 Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix, we remember the inaugural race at Albert Park in 1996 and Jacques Villeneuves spectacular F1 debut
Formula One racing has a rich history of impressive debut performances - think Giancarlo Baghetti winning the French Grand Prix in his first race in 1961, a still-injured Johnny Herbert coming fourth in Brazil in 1989, or more recently, Lewis Hamilton marking his first ever start with third in the 2007 Australian Grand Prix. But few drivers in the modern era have come as close to winning on their maiden outing as a precociously-talented 24-year-old did in Melbourne in 1996
Jacques Villeneuve, son of the late six-time Grand Prix winner, Gilles, was hardly an unknown when he arrived at Albert Park that year. The previous season the French-Canadian had won both the IndyCar championship and the showpiece Indy 500, but with memories of Michael Andrettis disappointing transfer from Indy to F1 racing still fresh in the memory, the jury was out on whether Villeneuve would be a success.
His Williams team had given him every chance to get to grips with F1 machinery with a lengthy programme of winter testing, but when he pipped experienced team mate Damon Hill to pole position in his first ever qualifying session, there was still shock in the paddock, not least from the man himself.
"I didn't expect to be up there," said Villeneuve, "but after the laps on Thursday, Friday and this morning we knew we could make it. So with my engineers and the rest of the guys we worked to be sure to get it. I am very satisfied."
The rookie had every reason to be satisfied - hed become the first man since Carlos Reutemann in 1972 (and only the third person in history) to score pole position on his debut and, with the Williams FW18 looking the class of the field, there was every chance of him emulating Baghetti with victory.
On race day morning, there was debate in the paddock - would Villeneuve repeat his qualifying heroics or would he succumb to the pressure of the occasion? Having raced in IndyCar for the previous two years (and in Formula Atlantic before that) Villeneuve was accustomed to rolling starts, not that youd know it by the way he launched his FW18 off the grid at the start of the race.
Team mate Hill tucked in behind Villeneuve going into the first corner, but the newcomers good start was soon to count for nothing as the red flags came out after Martin Brundles Jordan had spectacularly barrel-rolled into the gravel at Turn 3.
After a slight delay, the race was re-started and, impressively, Villeneuve made as efficient a start as he had before - minimal wheel spin, maximum acceleration and the chance to turn into the first corner unopposed. But one thing was for sure - Hill, championship runner-up in the two previous seasons, was not going to let his new team mate run away to victory. Instead, the Briton latched onto the back of Villeneuves car until his first pit stop and then put in a sequence of quick laps to emerge marginally ahead after a stop of his own.
But for those thinking the race would be a formality now that Hill had got his nose in front, Villeneuve had a swift response. With his team mates tyres still not up to temperature he bravely forced his way around the outside of Hill into Turn 4 and proceeded to hold the lead, even surviving a grassy moment at Turn 1 on lap 35.
"I thought he'd lost it," said Hill. "I thought he might catch me when he came back onto the track so I was going to one side. Then he started coming across the track and I had to lift off. When I got back on the power again he had straightened it all out. It was a bit scary."
But just as a fairy tale debut victory seemed to be on the cards, fate intervened. Villeneuves car had been trailing small amounts of smoke throughout the race, with Hills behind him getting grimier and grimier as a result. The Canadians car was losing oil and eventually the Williams pit wall gave him the inevitable slow down message.
"I reckon Jacques started losing oil from about the time of our stops," said Hill. "I was getting covered in it - it was down my neck and everything. I'd used all my visor tear-offs and was wiping my visor with my glove, which just made visibility worse, of course. As well as that, I was worried that his engine might go bang and we'd both go off on the oil."
As it was, Villeneuve let Hill by and the future champion went on to cross the line 38 seconds ahead of his young team mate.
"Of course it was disappointing, because the win was there, said Villeneuve afterwards. We had fought until those final laps and, without the problem, it would have been a battle to the end. But, you know, second place in my first Grand Prix is great, so I feel very happy."
He may not have won, but Jacques Villeneuve had made quite an impression.
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