McLaren’s David Coulthard gasped a sigh of relief after the 1997 Australian Grand Prix on 9 March, as the Scot broke a long winless drought of his own.
The opening race of the 1997 season in Melbourne was led by a Williams front-row lockout, as Jacques Villeneuve headed new teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
There was early drama when reigning world champion Damon Hill, who was replaced by Frentzen at Williams, suffered a throttle jam during the formation lap in his new Arrows colours. Hill was surprisingly left to defend his title in 1997 with Arrows after being dropped by Williams.
Villeneuve also had an early end to his afternoon, sideswiped by Eddie Irvine in his out-of-control Ferrari at Turn 1 on the opening lap of the race. Irvine misjudged his braking point, locking up his front tyre and ploughing into the side of Villeneuve and Sauber’s Johnny Herbert – ending all three of their races.
Williams was left with Frentzen in front, electing to run a two-stop strategy unlike the rest of the field that set up for a one-stop race. The two-stop approach meant Frentzen was able to push, creating a buffer to the chasing pack. The German worked his lead up to a race-high 10 seconds before he pitted and returned to the track in third position, behind Coulthard and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher in first and second respectively.
Frentzen became stuck behind lapped traffic at one point, patiently working his way through the backmarkers, before he regained the lead following Coulthard and Schumacher’s first and only scheduled stops and pushed again to create a gap for his second scheduled stop.
Meanwhile, Benneton’s Jean Alesi embarrassingly fell out of the race, running out of fuel on Lap 34. The Frenchman refused to enter the pits after being called in and became too dialled into his race pace.
Back at the front, Frentzen’s lead continued to grow, as he aimed for a big enough buffer to allow him to re-join the race in the lead. His track position looked to be touch and go as he dived into the Pit Lane, but it mattered little as a right-rear tyre problem hampered his stop, pushing the German back to third place.
Like Alesi, Schumacher’s fuel strategy became alarming, as the two-time world champion was forced to make an unscheduled stop for a fuel top-up. Frentzen moved up to second place before encountering more issues of his own.
The Williams driver’s brake discs started to dramatically wear, leaving large amounts of black brake dust around the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit. Inevitably, Frentzen suffered a high-speed brake failure, snapping his FW19 machine into a spin towards the Turn 1 gravel trap with only three laps to go.
Coulthard became the last man standing at the front, comfortably winning in Melbourne by a whopping 20 seconds to Schumacher. On a day where reliability reigned supreme, Coulthard’s victory was the second of his eventual 13 career wins, and his first since the 1995 Portuguese Grand Prix.