The beginning of the 1997 season heralded a lot of change in the world of Formula One; Goodyear found fresh competition from Bridgestone, McLaren turned Mercedes silver after years of dayglo Marlboro red, reigning world champion Damon Hill found himself with backmarkers Arrows, Williams finally bagged Heinz-Harald Frentzen, two new teams found their way onto the grid thanks to Alain Prost and Jackie Stewart and there was the return of Lola.
The teams headed to Melbourne full of hope and much promise of an exciting year ahead.
It took Jacques Villeneuve just under 90 seconds to make an impact so strong that jaws dropped up and down the paddock. In setting a time of 1:29.369, the Canadian was miles in front of his nearest competitor, team-mate Frentzen, who was a full 1.7 seconds slower. The nearest car that wasn’t a Williams was Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, a further 4-tenths back. Throw in a shambles from Lola who couldn’t get either car within the 107% rule and the mood at Albert Park had taken a swift swan dive by Saturday evening.
Cloudy skies surrounded Melbourne on race day, and a thunderstorm was brewing at Arrows as Damon Hill’s car ground to a halt on the formation lap to round off a terrible weekend for the 1996 champion.
Meanwhile, the fear that Villeneuve was going to simply waltz away into the distance lasted just one corner, after Eddie Irvine piled into Turn One with gusto, taking out the Canadian and a electric-starting Johnny Herbert. The incident left Frentzen clear in the lead from David Coulthard and Schumacher. The gap between Frentzen and Coulthard grew at an alarming rate of knots, sometimes by as much as two seconds a lap. Despite the speed from Williams, it became clear that reliability was about to become a huge concern for the team as Frentzen’s brakes began to become increasingly critical as the race went on.
By lap 12 Frentzen had finally stopped pulling away, with his lead remaining at around 17 seconds, until he pitted on lap 18 after Williams had stuck him on a strange two stop strategy in order to help with those brake issues. Time lost in traffic left the German stuck behind Coulthard and Schumacher until the latter pair pitted themselves.
Frentzen began to increase his lead again before he began to fade in tandem with his brake pads. By the time of Frentzen’s second stop on lap 40 he barely had a big enough lead to emerge ahead of Coulthard and Schumacher; a sticky wheel nut ensured he would return to the track in third place. Further down the field there was ridicule aplenty at Benetton as Jean Alesi ignored call after call to pit for fuel. The Frenchman eventually ground to a halt at half distance much to boss Flavio Briatore’s chagrin.
Frentzen got to work tracking the McLaren and Ferrari down but three laps from the end his brakes finally cried enough in spectacular fashion. One disc exploded completely, spinning the Williams into the gravel at the first corner.
This left Coulthard in the lead ahead of Schumacher, who had to make a splash and dash for fuel late in the race.
The Scot took his first win for McLaren and only the second of his F1 career at that point. It ended a long drought from Ron Dennis’ team, their last win coming courtesy of the late Ayrton Senna in Australia in 1993.
Third place went to the other McLaren of Mika Hakkinen to ensure the team would lead the constructors championship with ease heading into the next round in Brazil. The final points placed were rounded up by Gerhard Berger, Olivier Panis – who gave Bridgestone their first ever F1 points – and Nicola Larini on his debut for Sauber.