“Grand Prix Stories” is a series of articles written by F1 fans and their experiences of going a GP.  Our first piece is by James, aka @CausticCorner on Twitter.  This is his story of Melbourne 1998, or as he puts it “A fan’s Champagne-sodden Aussie GP” – read on…

Without a ticket…

Sitting at home in Paddington, London, my mate rang: “Hi James, just an ‘amber alert’ at this stage, but what are you doing next Wednesday for about a week?”

I was skint in February 1998, as I had been out of work for four months without any income to speak of. Chris knew this, so this seemed a silly question. I was going to be doing nothing but staying home and seeking gainful employment.

He explained that there was half a chance of a freebie trip for the pair of us to the Australian Grand Prix in March. Coming from most people that would sound about as likely as a double-date with J-Lo and Beyoncé, but Chris is a corporate travel agent and was ‘connected’ with F1-loving Australian GP sponsors Qantas. After gaining permission from my long-suffering (now ex-) wife for this hypothetical trip of a lifetime, Chris would call back to confirm.

I was still somewhat incredulous when half an hour later the invitation was confirmed. Apparently, a prize-winner had turned down his all-in trip to the GP, as the prize was for one person only and he didn’t want to go alone. Someone in Qantas’ marketing department remembered Chris’ passion for F1, so offered him the ticket instead. Thankfully for me, he didn’t want to go alone either and cheekily asked if there was any chance of an extra ticket for ‘a friend’. Chris needed to confirm that the friend in question was (ahem) “a frequent business traveller to South East Asia” and somehow an extra invitation was extended.

Destination Melbourne

I still couldn’t quite believe it when a week later I was on my way to Heathrow Terminal Four. I’d been an F1 fan since the 70s, the days of Lauda, Hunt, Andretti, Villeneuve, but had somehow never attended an actual race. To say I was excited would be some understatement.

Then in an instant, like a cruel dream sequence, my bubble burst at the Qantas desk when Chris’ envelope contained only one ticket. I immediately envisaged my journey home, tail between legs, going red at the thought of people laughing at me having been so gullible. After double and triple checking the contents of the large envelope my heart sank as we stood there, not sure what to say to each other. On the off chance, Chris went back to the desk to see if there was possibly another item with my name on it. After what seemed an age, he returned, smiling and waving another envelope! I could have cried with joy.

Details of ‘the package’ from Qantas had been vague, other than the fact that we’d have ‘Must Ride’ tickets – which meant that the check-in desk would have to find us seats – plus three-day passes to the Albert Park circuit. We rocked up to check in; all was well and our seats were confirmed. The news got even better when the girl on the desk informed us that the tickets allocated by Qantas’ marketing department stated “Upgrade if available”. Not only did we have free seats, we had gratis Business Class seats! As these were subject to availability, there was no promise of the same treatment on the return journey, but we had the biggest grins imaginable all the way to Australia.

James arrives at Albert Park

We landed in Melbourne late on Thursday night and made our way to a small cheap hotel that a friend of ours in Sydney had found at very short notice. We checked in and asked the night porter if there might be an envelope (or two) waiting for us, which should contain some race tickets. A large package was produced, smiles again. We had no clue what all the wristbands, passes and lanyards were for, but we’d sort it out once we got to the circuit.

Friday

Far too excited to sleep, we were up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning.  As we made our way in, the atmosphere among the fans was just brilliant. Everyone was talking animatedly, swapping notes about where they’d travelled from and discussing their respective F1 allegiances. If I hadn’t realised it before, Australians love racing and the Grand Prix is clearly a very big deal for Melburnians. One lasting memory of entering the circuit is the anti-drink/drive slogan the crowd marshals had on their hats, “If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot”.

From our envelope we had taken only the items related to ‘Friday Practice’, though we had no idea where we would be sitting, as we saw no reference to any particular grandstand. We wandered in and were directed from one gate to another the other, until, eventually, we found ourselves on the inside of the circuit. We felt very much like Wayne and Garth in ‘Wayne’s World’, flashing laminates to a succession of security guards backstage at a rock concert until they could go no further. Chris and I had done just that, flashing our lanyards until we reached something called ‘Paddock Club’. We had no idea what that was, but there was a carpet, a rope barrier and fragrant Qantas hostesses. We hesitated momentarily and then gave it a go, stepping forward sheepishly, in the safe knowledge we’d no doubt be politely turned away and directed to another gate. I flashed my pass and smiled politely at the burly security guard and, blow me down, he nodded, unhooked the rope barrier and directed us up the stairs.

We were early and there was virtually no one else around. VIP guests never arrive early, of course. At the top of the stairs was a large hospitality area partitioned into separate units. We must have looked like lost little boys in a candy shop when one of the fragrant ladies asked to see our passes and directed us to the Qantas suite. There were tables with chequered flag cloths, a bar serving whatever you desired, an enormous breakfast buffet, bouquets of flowers and lots of foliage. But, best of all, at the end of the room were large windows and a door to an outside viewing gallery, overlooking the start/finish straight. We had died and gone to motor racing heaven! Chris and I looked at each other, not quite believing where we found ourselves. It’s a while ago, so this may be a false memory, but I believe it was at that exact moment that the floor started shaking. It was only Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Williams firing up; we were standing right on top of the 1997 Champions’ pit garage!

Like a pair of starved strays, we selected a ridiculous assortment of treats from the buffet and celebrated our good fortune with our first glass of Champagne to accompany breakfast. It wasn’t long before one of our hosts asked whether we’d care to join the day’s first pitwalk. She had a handful of passes for Qantas guests, but we were the only guests there at that time. The early bird catches the worm.

We got to hang around in front of all the garages, close up to the cars, watching the mechanics setting up for the first race weekend of the year. We were keen to catch sight of some drivers, though only Olivier Panis was sitting silently in his Prost-Peugeot cockpit while his pitcrew practised tyre stops. The rest of the day is a blur, but all of it was spent at the circuit, enjoying the freedom of our ‘access all areas’ passes, the smell of petrol in the air and, of course, that complimentary Champagne bar.

Saturday

Saturday, time for quali. Chris and I again arrived first at the Qantas suite; so early, in fact that the hospitality staff were still setting up. After 10 hours spent there the previous day, we’d gotten quite chummy with the students who manned the facility. We stood out like sore thumbs against the liggers, corporate hangers-on and low-level local dignitaries who’d turned out for the free bubbly and canapes. They couldn’t believe our childlike excitement at every blip of throttle from downstairs and the screams of cars going past the window, all of which was heightened by the endless flow of the fizzy amber nectar.

The 1998 MP4/13 was Adrian Newey’s first all-new McLaren. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard sleepwalked to a lock-out at the front of the grid, which pleased me no end. I had been a DC fan since he broke onto the scene after Senna was killed and immediately proved more than a match for teammate Damon Hill. My wife was also a massive DC fan, after meeting him at a Rothmans photoshoot she’d organised with him. David had even driven her 1.2L Renault Clio around the site, so if there was one driver I wanted to visit the Qantas suite after quali, it was David.

Coulthard in a Clio!

It turned out that Qantas had flown DC and his parents out to Australia and would be flying him to a post-race holiday in Asia afterwards, so he duly arrived in our suite to brief us and the liggers on the day’s events. He revealed that the polesitter would get the call over his teammate on the first pit-stop and strategy throughout the race, so “pole would have been better, but we’re looking good for the race”.

Our fellow guests in the suite seemed quite underwhelmed at the presence of Mr Coulthard, which left Chris and me clear to sidle up to him for handshakes, photos and some fan/idol chit-chat. He politely nodded and ummed here and there at my gibberish about him meeting my wife at Eurotunnel. Only when I mentioned the blue-eyed, busty blonde with the green Clio did he stop umming and glanced me a knowing smile. Good moment, that.

Sunday

On race day, we pitched up early once more. Yet another pitwalk followed, though this had come to be taken for granted by now: we craved some Paddock action. ‘Paddock Club’ guests had passes to the hospitality area and grandstand on top of the pit garages, it was a gilded corridor – no access to the areas to front and back; to the pit-lane or the Paddock itself. Paddock passes were strictly time-limited and small in number, but our hostess said she’d see what she could do. About an hour before the race, two passes were handed over for “strictly 30 minutes and not a second longer.”

We were in the Paddock, at Melbourne! Faces I had only seen on TV – the drivers, team principals, the whole circus – were just mingling and lounging around; faces I had only ever seen on TV. As one does, we decided to try our luck at the back of the Ferrari garage, which was unguarded. Chris and I strolled in, zigzagged through the panelled corridor, past various people and equipment, nonchalantly rocking up into the bay out front where the cars were being readied to go out. It was like a dream, just standing there in the midst of all this activity, as though it was happening to somebody else. F1 nirvana.

As time was soon up, we reluctantly handed back our cherished passes and returned to the suite, which had filled up with more-important looking liggers this time and a few local celebs. We rubbed shoulders with the likes of David Campese, Barry Sheene and Dannii Minogue. Flicking through some photos of the event while writing this, I noticed that even a young Mark Webber was there, though at the time we had no idea who he was, of course. The real thrill for us, however, was watching the race with DC’s parents, Joyce and Duncan, whom couldn’t have been more friendly and chatty.

The Australian GP of 1998 is best remembered for McLaren’s team orders, as Coulthard let Hakkinen pass him to take the win, both drivers having lapped the entire field. The odd thing for us was how DC had gotten ahead of Mika in the first place, with Mika having taken to the pitlane for no apparent reason, waving to his unready pit crew as he drove by. No stop happened and Mika rejoined behind David, who let him re-take the lead in a synchronised move to take the win. Having heard no missed gear or any other audible problem, it was only after the race that DC revisited our suite to enlighten us.

The McLaren drivers knew long before the race that they had easily the fastest car. They had agreed that the teammate to lead into the first corner would be “allowed to take the race”, in Coulthard’s words. David, being the gentleman racer he is, honoured this agreement even after Mika had made his unnecessary trip through the pitlane. The rest, as they say, is motor racing history.

It was deflating to see the pitlane and our hospitality suite dissembled so quickly after the race. Chris and I were desperate for some more post-race action, but half the grid was already in the air, we were told. Everything was being packed up and the circuit emptied out rapidly. The students in the suite were busy selling off their GP-branded uniforms to their well-heeled guests. They’d have to pay a fine for ‘lost’ items, but shirts, ties, bags and caps were fetching good prices. We heard that the Jordan GP crew would be partying in a bar in town, so like a sad couple of groupies, we headed there in the hope that we might be able to gatecrash. We failed, but it felt good to still be near to the F1 circus in a minor way.

After the Grand Prix

We weren’t flying home until Tuesday afternoon. Luckily, the retired Melburnian parents of an Aussie friend in London had been volunteered to play tour guides to us. ‘Gil and Debbo’ were hilarious, had never met us before, but took it upon themselves to drive us around for hours. We spent Monday learning how to body surf at Lorne beach, which was just stunning, with drinks in a beach bar and a ‘barbie in the bush’ at sundown. With time to spare before our flight on Tuesday, did we fancy a tour of the Yarra Valley vineyards in the morning and a spot of lunch at Domaine Chandon? Silly question.

At the airport, we changed back into chinos and blazers, hoping against hope for some more Business Class action. This time our luck was out.

We resigned ourselves to our Economy seats, slightly disappointed as we inspected the single-sided dining menu and the preselected movies. As we studied the sparse in-flight offer, two people rocked up at the back of the plane, stopping by our side: “These are our seats” they said whilst showing us boarding passes with our seat numbers. As we sweated at the prospect of getting bumped off the flight a handsome fellow from Qantas came bounding down the isle at a rate of knots: “Come with me, guys”, he called out, “I have some seats in Business for you”.

I had been lucky enough to be upgraded before, but being snatched, liberated even, from an Economy seat, emptying your overhead locker and strolling to the ‘business end’ of a packed 747, well that is one of the best feelings ever! It crowned what remains, without a doubt, the most awesome week of my life. Thanks, Chris.

James’ Photo Gallery:

Images used are James’ personal pictures, which he has kindly allowed us to publish – these are not to be downloaded and distributed elsewhere without prior permission.

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