The modern day Australian Grand Prix is a bit special. Though F1 has only been visiting Melbourne since 1996 the event feels like an old classic. Less than two decades of grand prix racing have earned Albert Park a place in the same bracket as Monza or Silverstone, and while it doesn’t actually match those events for history it’s done very well simply to be mentioned in the same breath.
How has this relatively short-lived grand prix come to occupy such an important place in collective F1 memory? It’s spot on the calendar certainly helps. For 17 of the last 19 years Melbourne has been the season-opening race, which with the exception of a world title showdown and perhaps Monaco ranks as the most anticipated of the season. We invest a great deal of excitement in F1’s big kick off: even in 2010, when the circus began in Bahrain, every F1 fan was desperate to see the race; usually it generates as much fever as a safety car start in mild drizzle.
Melbourne also benefits from a distinctive circuit, mixing parkland with public roads, and with the city skyline as its backdrop. The long walled-in section between turns 9/10 and 11/12 offers a particularly spectacular sight as F1 cars scream through.
And let’s not ignore the fact that the race is on at Stupid O’Clock (in Europe anyway), which makes waking up for it a slightly painful but undeniably rewarding experience. Getting a first real sight of the new season’s cars in FP1 or qualifying, bleary eyed and beset by separation anxiety from your bed, is just part of being an F1 fan. There is a sense of collective suffering and enjoyment, a shared experience that goes beyond the racing and gives viewers a feeling of achievement for simply getting up at 5am on a Sunday and not dying. It makes the memories far more vivid: I can remember staring blankly at the numbers on my clock before the 1998 race, chiefly because they were formed into shapes I’d not really seen before – there’s a four in the morning as well?! – while wondering if McLaren could convert their qualifying pace into race domination.
And where else can you get surprises like the season opener? The aforementioned McLaren resurrection in ‘98, the barely-believable pace Ferrari so often arrived with in the early-2000s, or Brawn’s emergence in 2009. By mid-season they’re the norm, but at Albert Park it’s brand new.
Significant changes to the F1 calendar since 1996 have played their part, too. With the influx of new events – many of which have been met with a lukewarm response – the ‘older’ races have been bumped up into the company of genuine classics by default; Albert Park doesn’t match Suzuka for sheer brilliance, but they’re both lumped into the same category.
But let’s not forget that when the talking stops this is often a fantastic grand prix that regularly delivers drama by the bucketload. From race one back in 1996 when debutant Jacques Villeneuve nearly beat team-mate Damon Hill to victory, the young Canadian an eye-catching new addition to the sport with his strange Transatlantic accent, lurid helmet colours and iconic surname. JV lost the race by running wide at turn one and suffering an oil leak that eventually blackened Hill’s car. A year later Villeneuve was the strong favourite but his grand prix ended at turn one; David Coulthard won, the first of his two victories in Melbourne.
In ‘98 we wondered whether the McLarens could make good on their stunning qualifying pace, having watched Williams cars dominate F1 for the past few seasons. 1999 was the scene of Eddie Irvine’s first F1 victory, which set the Ulsterman on an unlikely title challenge, and rather less famously saw Pedro de la Rosa score a debut point in the stunningly liveried Arrows. A year later it was Jenson Button who starred on debut for Williams, while the utterly forgettable Gaston Mazzacane also made the first of his 21 grand prix outings in a fluorescent yellow Minardi.
In 2001 Jean Alesi’s Prost-Acer had shown well during testing, thought the car was almost devoid of sponsors; it turned out it wasn’t all that quick, and the pre-season heroics had been an attempt to find new financial backers (a lesson never to be forgotten). The race was marred by tragedy when a loose wheel struck and killed a marshal.
2002 was all about a huge turn one accident when Ralf Schumacher used Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari as a launchpad, and Mark Webber’s fairytale run to P5 in the box-like Minardi-Asiatech. In 2003 Coulthard won from 11th on the grid, while in 2004 Michael Schumacher was imperious as he secured his fourth victory in five years at Albert Park. No one has scored more World Championship Australian Grand Prix wins than the great German.
2005 and ‘06 belonged to Renault, with Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso respectively sealing the spoils. On both occasions, the Spaniard would go on to become world champion. In 2007 we saw Kimi win on his first outing in Ferrari colours, as well as the instant success of rookie Lewis Hamilton. The McLaren driver won the race 12 months later on his way to the world title.
In 2009 Jenson Button began the Brawn fairytale with a commanding win from team-mate Barrichello, but lurking in the background was a 21-year-old Sebastian Vettel, whose Red Bull team seemed to have something mighty of their own in the works. Button won again in 2010, a supposedly unlikely but very popular win in only his second race for McLaren, while Vettel – now the reigning world champion – triumphed the following year to begin an utterly dominant season.
Button secured his third Australian Grand Prix victory in 2012 – he is the only man to get within touching distance of Schumacher during the F1 era – before a cunning strategy bagged Kimi a second Melbourne win 12 months ago.
And this year again Melbourne will stir up memories and get fans excited like few other races can, sleepy and confused but eager for F1. With such a dramatic overhaul to the technical regulations – and the running order – an utterly unpredictable race in in the offing. Let’s hope it’s one we remember for years to come.