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Villeneuve Makes Stunning Start

March 7, 1996

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ Jacques Villeneuve made a spectacular start to his Formula One career Thursday, recording the fastest time of the opening familiarization session for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.

The 24-year-old Indy-car series champion from Canada lapped at 126.985 mph around the 3.274-mile course that winds through Albert Park.

Villeneuve joined the Williams-Renault team this year as teammate of Damon Hill, runnerup the last two years in the Formula One driver standings.

Hill was second on Thursday, almost a second slower than Villeneuve.

Jean Alesi of France was third in his first competitive drive for the Benetton-Renault team after switching from Ferrari.

Two-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher of Germany, who has switched from Benetton to Ferrari, was fourth and Dutchman Jos Verstappen was fifth in a Footwork-Hart.

Mika Hakkinen of Finland, seriously injured in a crash at Adelaide four months ago, was 11th among the 22 racers who practiced.

Villeneuve is the son of former Ferrari star Gilles Villeneuve, who was killed in an accident in qualifying for the Belgian Grand in 1982. Last year, Villeneuve became the youngest winner of the Indy-car title.

Familiarization sessions like those on Thursday are held when a circuit is used for the first time. The Australian Grand Prix previously was held in Adelaide. Official practice will be held Friday with qualifying on Saturday.

The session was marked by several spins, featuring Hill, Alesi, Hakkinen, Pedro Lamy, Pedro Dinis, Ricardo Rosset, Ruben Barrichello and Ukyo Katayama. Italian rookie Giancarlo Fisichella crashed during the second session but was unhurt.

The opening race of the year traditionally is a good guide to season form.

The winner of the first race has gone on to win the drivers championship the last six years.

The 1996 season sees several rule changes. Fridays now will be given over to practice with qualifying reduced to a one-hour session on Saturday.

Drivers who are not within a set target of the pole sitter will be excluded from the starting grid _ which will increase the likelihood of smaller fields.

Sunday’s race will be held over 58 laps, a total of 189.892 miles.

The new circuit has been the subject of continued protests since it was announced the Australian race would be switched from Adelaide.

The Save Albert Park group, which says a public park should not be closed for a private event, has vowed to stage an ``international incident″ on race day, but has said its protest will not endanger spectators or drivers.

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