The F1 season opener is fast approaching, back in its seemingly natural environment at Melbourne – let’s be honest, part of the reason for the joy when the 2011 Bahrain GP was cancelled was due to the opening race being back in Australia where it belongs, in addition to the major moral and political issues involved.
The Melbourne Grand Prix has been the season opener every year since 1996, apart from two exceptions: 2010 when Bernie first tried shifting it to the Middle East and in 2006 when it was the third race of the year, having moved aside to make way for Melbourne’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games that year. However, those of us with longer memories will recall the days when the Australian GP was held not just at the opposite end of the F1 season, but in a completely different city and state on the Adelaide Street Circuit.
Whereas the Albert Park circuit is more sinuous and flowing in shape as it follows the outlines of the lake, the Adelaide circuit was more obviously a street circuit, with long straights along main roads on the outskirts of Adelaide’s business district, such as the famous Brabham Straight along Dequetteville Terrace, and with the addition of a long hairpin in Victoria Park, that featured the pits and the start-finish straight.
The circuit was used for the Australian Grand Prix for its first eleven years, from its introduction to the Formula One Championship in 1985 until 1995 after which the race moved to Melbourne. It was the venue for the final race of the season and saw championships decided there both dramatically (in 1986) and controversially (in 1994).
It was the circuit where Ayrton Senna won his final race in 1993 and where after his death the following year the chicane at the end of the pit straight was named after him. It was also the circuit that nearly claimed the life of another F1 great in 1995 and it is also a circuit which has the distinction of holding an F1 record, albeit not one which they would want through choice.
The 1986 race was the final race in a close season which saw three potential drivers’ champions on the grid; Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet driving for Williams and Alain Prost, the defending champion, in his McLaren. Mansell took pole position for the race, but a poor start saw in fourth place by the end of the first lap, having been overtaken by Piquet, Senna and Keke Rosberg.
Rosberg took the lead early in the race and held on to it until forced to retire after a puncture on lap 63. This left Piquet in the lead, but with Mansell in second place, which would still give him enough points to take the championship. Unfortunately for Mansell, his left rear tyre exploded on the main straight on the very next lap, leaving just Piquet and Prost in contention.
Concerned after the tyre problems that had ended the races of both Rosberg and Mansell, the Williams team decided to bring Piquet in for a precautionary tyre change, but he emerged from the pits fifteen seconds behind Prost, who only had to finish ahead of the Brazilian to take the championship. Piquet managed to close the gap to just 4.2 seconds by the chequered flag, but it was not enough and Prost successfully defended his title.
The 1991 race was also memorable but for completely different reasons, as it holds the record for the shortest Grand Prix ever, being red flagged having completed just 16 out of a scheduled 81 laps due to torrential rain. The results were counted from the end of lap 14, with Ayrton Senna winning the race with a time of 24 mins 34.899 seconds.
1993 saw the end of the great Senna vs Prost rivalry as Alain Prost competed in his final F1 race at Adelaide. The championship had already been decided in Prost’s favour, his fourth title, and the Williams team had dominated the season taking every pole so far and already having sealed the constructors’ championship.
This race, however, belonged to Ayrton Senna, who led all but 5 laps and finished 9 seconds ahead of Prost, securing second place for him and for McLaren in the drivers’ and constructors’ championships respectively. Overcome by emotion, Senna hugged his great rival on the podium as he celebrated what would turn out to be not just his last win for McLaren before joining Williams for the ’94 season, but what would turn out to be his last win ever.
The drivers’ championship was once again decided in Australia in the 1994 race as Damon Hill began the race just one point behind Michael Schumacher in the table and one place behind him on the grid in third, with both of them behind Nigel Mansell on pole. When the race started Schumacher immediately took the lead, followed by Hill in second, but what looked to be developing into a tight championship battle ended abruptly on lap 36 as Hill gained on Schumacher.
The German’s Benetton went off the track, hitting a wall, before managing to pull back in front of Hill’s Williams. At the next corner as Hill attempted to overtake, Schumacher turned into Hill, ending his own race immediately as the two cars collided. Hill managed to limp home to the pits, but the damage to his left front suspension was too great and he was forced to retire.
The incident was judged by stewards to be a racing incident and the Williams team decided not to challenge the decision, possibly as they were still dealing with the death of Senna earlier in the season. With neither driver scoring points Schumacher won the first of his seven world championships.
The final race at Adelaide also involved Schumacher colliding with another driver, causing both to retire, however this time the other driver, Jean Alesi, was not in contention for the championship and Schumacher had already won his second straight title, so it passed with less controversy.
The race weekend is also remembered for the crash during practice that hospitalised Mika Häkkinen and would likely have killed him if F1 medical officer Sid Watkins hadn’t carried out an emergency procedure at trackside to allow him to keep breathing, after having already re-started the Finnish driver’s heart twice.
The following season, the Australian GP moved from Adelaide to its new home in Melbourne and instead of deciding the fate of F1 seasons, it became instead the overture where potentials are revealed and possible champions begin their journeys to success or disappointment and where the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief that at last the Formula One season is back.