Having previously attended the Monaco Grand Prix, the Le Mans 24 Hours and eighteen British Grands Prix, I was eager for my first non-European international motor racing event. Every year since I was a six year old singing “the Chain” in the playground, the race that has had me religiously waking up at stupid o clock for it (or staying up after a big night out), is the Australian Grand Prix. And every year I have said that one day I’ll go to this race in Melbourne, maybe just the best city in the world.
I first visited Albert Park in November during a visit to Melbourne and was ridiculously excited to see in the flesh all the corners of the circuit which hold so many iconic memories for me, some real and some simply from racing the track on the Playstation growing up with my brother! What was remarkable was how different the place looked before the colossal amounts of barriers, signage, catch fencing, marquees and so on were bumped in. There was turn three, where I remember Martin Brundle famously crashing in the first modern Albert Park race in 1996, except now it was just a car park. There were all the pit buildings, except now they were just empty shells with nothing but a small café and some soccer goalposts stored in them. There was the sweeping back straight, where Timo Glock and Pastor Maldonado crashed spectacularly late on in the 2008 and 2012 Grands Prix respectively, except now it just had a few swans on it. The rest of the park was just, well, a park, complete with tennis courts, playgrounds, parking meters on the faded grid straight and very little to remind you that once a year this pretty grassland is transformed into a mecca of speed drawing the world’s eyes back to Melbourne.
Come last Thursday and the venue had changed dramatically, transforming into the Albert Park I knew and loved from years of getting up in the small hours with that unparalleled anticipation brought upon by a new season and the end of another long winter F1 drought. Thursday was a lovely, relaxed day. Billed as “Heritage Day” to celebrate 60 years since the first Grand Prix around the Albert Park lake, general admission (which gets you into the cool V8 Supercar paddock and all F1 autograph sessions) was free and the result was a wonderful atmosphere and my first chance to see the circuit in all its glory.
In 2009, Bernie Ecclestone and co decided the Australian Grand Prix should be an evening race, to better suit European television schedules. As a result, the event benefits from relaxed late starts (gates do not open until 10:30) and thanks to the excellent transport infrastructure between the track and the city, it was actually possible to pop down to the event for a bit, walk the circuit, soak up the atmosphere and be back in time for an evening work shift. This is a far cry from Silverstone, where for years we used to wake as early as 3am to get to the gate for 7am and make sure we were not caught up in the traffic chaos. Fair enough, Silverstone is much better these days (last year aside, and that was really just a case of bad weather fortune) but to have a Grand Prix going on a fifteen minute tram ride away from the city and pull it off is superb. Hats off to the Australian Grand Prix Corporation for putting on said trams every 1-2 minutes all weekend; only during the Saturday rain cancellation palaver did the trams fail to run efficiently and that was because one broke down.
The relaxed atmosphere was present all four days and much of that is to do with the laidback Aussie attitude – even during the grim weather, everyone was ridiculously friendly and helpful. During the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, much was made of the friendliness of the “Games Maker” volunteers and how helpful they were, yet this seems to be the norm at Australian events. That said, the tension and excitement built magnificently all weekend, aided by some brilliant audio-visual preview montages on the big screens with booming voiceover narrations proclaiming the start of a new season.
The first V8 supercar race was probably the best race of the weekend. It was my first chance to check out our “Senna” grandstand seats at the exit of the final corner and I was mightily impressed. We had a perfect view of any cars coming into the pits, combined with a big TV screen immediately across from us, meaning keeping track of the action would be easy. Plus, we were far closer to the track than you can get almost anywhere on the free admission areas. It was during this race that I heard a piece of commentary you would never hear anywhere other than Australia – “he’s getting drive, whilst his team mate’s getting slide, and he’s down the inside!” – I don’t even think the commentator was aware that he emphasised the rhyming words to perfection.
The great thing about getting around the Albert Park circuit is that you can do it so easily. There are walkways all around the circuit that never stray too far from the action, often both on the inside and outside, with regular crossing bridges to allow you to check out both points of view. Whoever came up with the idea of a floating pontoon bridge across the lake deserves a medal, as it perfectly serves to allow one to walk a half lap, bisecting the track neatly. I had always wondered about the logistics of the turn nine camera prior to the floating pontoon; it always appears to be in the middle of the crowd and yet sweeps over their heads just high enough to create one of my favourite shots on the whole of the Formula One calendar. I was as excited to find this crane cam, right in the centre of the crowd and separated only by a close ring of tape, as I was to see the turn nine shortcut which my brother and I always used to cheat with on the Playstation. For those less geeky about every single corner, there was plenty of infield entertainment including spectacular air displays and the ludicrous “Nitro Circus Live”, a stunning international display of stunt bikes.
By third free practice on Saturday, dramatic winds blowing rain across the lake had replaced the pleasant conditions of earlier in the week (which in turn replaced the longest, hottest heatwave in Victorian history a few days earlier, such is the changeable Melbourne climate). It felt more like Knockhill in Scotland and prompted the obligatory TV shots where the cameraman pokes the camera over the shoulder of someone on the pit wall to show their monitor displaying the latest weather radar and predictions. Surely it is high time FOM simply created an on-screen graphic to display this data for the public the same way they do for the teams, rather than filming someone’s monitor? And the programmes should be waterproof – they can do it with Australian money so why not?
Talking of television, the “GPTV” team of Peter Windsor, Louise Goodman and Bob Constanduros worked very well, and the PA system was on the whole just loud enough to make out when there was a lull between F1 engines screaming past you. The cheesy American accent voiceover of eventual race winner Kimi Raikkonen in the endlessly repeated dandruff advert was less impressive – “all 15001 parts of my Lotus F1 car have to be in peak condition including me and my scalp”. No wonder the flying Finn refused to speak the words himself…
Come Sunday and the bumper qualifying and race schedule, it became increasingly important to be able to tell the F1 drivers apart from their helmets. As this is a new season, we have five rookies and the drivers in recent times have had somewhat of a reputation for frequently changing their helmet designs, it was a tricky task. For anyone attending a Grand Prix in 2013 who wishes to determine any given driver from their teammate, here is my easy-to-memorise guide for all the ones that are less obvious: Kimi and Romain are written above the driver’s head on the Lotuses; Rosberg’s helmet is a brighter yellow than Lewis’; Hulkenberg’s helmet is black and red; Maldonado, Van Der Garde and Chilton all have black helmets; and Vergne’s helmet is yellow. Confusingly, thanks to the last minute driver announcements, Bianchi and Sutil’s helmets were absent from the official programme, which was otherwise excellent. Sutil went on to have a magnificent comeback, leading the race before fading to seventh when he inevitably put on the supersofts. Hulkenberg’s demise (he failed to start the race) meant that Sutil was in prime position as the highest placed driver not to have made it to Q3 in qualifying and thus able to start on the medium compound Pirellis. Both Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi, who almost got Sutil’s seat at Force India for this year, must have been watching the German leading the race thinking “that could have been me…”
Meanwhile, home favourite Webber had another disappointing year at Albert Park. His poor start which dropped him from second on the grid to seventh by the first corner was not his fault, but the guy behind me in the grandstand did not know this and exclaimed “bloody idiot couldn’t even start a lawnmower”, twice in fact, just to make sure we had all heard him. Such amusements are rare at Grands Prix outside of Australia, I am sure.
After an enthralling race which saw more leaders than any other race bar about two in fifty years of the sport, we joined the masses in pouring onto the grid straight. Again, it was a fantastic atmosphere which contained all the great elements you would want from a Grand Prix, but with an added touch of Aussie character, flair and fantastically high levels of organisation that other rounds in the championship would do well to model their event on.
Peering over the side of the grid, I was amused to see one of the parking meters I recognised from my November visit hiding just between the main straight catch fencing and the grandstand. It was a brilliant reminder at what a sublime job Melbourne does each year transforming this place from almost unrecognisable beautiful parkland to international sporting arena and back again. Long may it last.