Currently reading: From the archive: Jacques Villeneuve makes dramatic F1 debut
We look back to 1996 for Formula 1’s exciting first visit to Albert Park in Australia
4 mins read
24 March 2020

Everything feels incredibly weird this week, doesn’t it? Now that we’re not even allowed out of the house, the fact that Formula 1 won’t start up again until mid-June or later actually seems quite minor.

The 2020 season was supposed to start last weekend, with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

The long, boring winter being brought to an end at this part-street, part-permanent race track through Albert Park will feel to younger fans a tradition, perhaps even historic, given that it has been race one for every season bar two since its controversial renovation for 1996.

The star of that first race was debutant Jacques Villeneuve. The 24-year-old Canadian had joined the leading Williams team in place of David Coulthard and wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity, having won the Indycar World Series (at the time known as CART) over in North America.

The main weight of expectation, however, came of course from his surname. Jacques was the only son of Gilles Villeneuve, the mercurial genius of car control; go and watch his battle with Renault's René Arnoux at Dijon if you don’t know it already, as it’s probably the best bit of racing you will ever see in F1.

Villeneuve Senior could have been World Champion in 1979 if he had ignored Ferrari team orders, and no doubt more opportunites were within his grasp, but was stolen away far too young in a horrendous crash at Zolder in 1982.  

Another only son of an F1 cult hero sat across from Villeneuve in the Williams garage for the 1996 season: Damon Hill, who already had four seasons under his belt and by all rights should have been crowned champion in 1994 but for Michael Schumacher using his Benetton as a battering ram.

Jacques introduced himself to the world of F1 in the best possible way, by taking pole position by almost three-tenths of a second ahead of Hill. The FW18 was easily the fastest car that season, although its closest competitor would be the F310 pair of Schumacher and Northern Irishman Eddie Irvine.

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As Albert Park was finally christened by Goodyear rubber, Villeneuve streaked off into the lead. However, the race was red-flagged after just three corners, due to a “horrendous accident” that sent veteran Martin Brundle violently cartwheeling into the gravel trap but miraculously emerging unharmed and sprinting back to the pits to enter his team’s spare car – “the best possible advertisement for the constructional safety of the Jordan chassis,” Autocar said at the time.

“There was a key moment that truly showed Jacques Villeneuve to be a chip off the old block,” we continued. “On lap 34, under mounting pressure from his ever-present team-mate, the Indy 500 winner slid into the rough. He would later admit it was his own mistake, and he thought he was a gonner.

“But the front wheels told the story. As the FW18 crabbed sideways, they remained perfectly parallel without a touch of over-correction. It was a split-second that offered a fascinating insight into the talent and co-ordination of the man who oh-so-nearly drove into the record book with a win in his first GP.

“Earlier, there had been the moment when he ran round the outside of Hill’s FW18 to retake the lead after the two cars had made their single refuelling stops – just after the Englishman had squeezed in front coming out of the pits. Epic stuff!

“Apart from that on lap 34, Villeneuve never put a wheel wrong. Hill was a lucky winner, his oil-stained FW18 slipping ahead with only just over four laps to go, after Villeneuve was signalled to ease up. 

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“An ominous blue haze from Villeneuve’s engine 19 laps before the end told the story. His oil pressure was fading fast and he could count himself lucky to scramble home in second.”

The Williams duo were joined on the first Melbourne podium by Irvine after his German superior at Ferrari was forced to retire with brake problems. 

Emerging from his now-brown-and-blue FW18, Hill said: “Jacques showed today that he is a genuine racer. It was a real thriller. I feel on top of the world at the moment.”

“Sure, it was disappointing to lead most of the race and then have to slow down,” said Villeneuve. But the whole race itself was fun and a good demonstration of the Williams’ capability.”

Autocar concluded by writing “Hill had better make hay while the sun shines. This boy is going all the way.

Indeed, the 1996 title fight did last all 16 races, ending in glory for Hill – as many will remember from an iconic piece of commentary from Murray Walker. 

But the Villeneuve name would finally enter the hall of champions, long overdue, the next season, as Jacques scored nearly twice as many points from new partner Heinz-Harald Frentzen and managed to dodge another attempt at cheating for the title from Schumacher (resulting this time in his total disqualification from the championship by the FIA).


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