Morning after the weekend before
MARCH 30, 2011
Four times I'd waited for a tram at Middle Park station, just beside Gate 1 at Albert Park circuit. Four times I'd failed to notice a neat little cafe on the platform.
That's because Tram Cafe had been boarded up and locked down for the Grand Prix weekend. Your average race fan is not the sort of clientele that would appreciate this bijou coffee shop trading on a normal day to young couples sipping their lattes and cappuccinos on the back veranda and gazing across the pastures of this extensive park.
The Grand Prix weekend is far from 'normal' judging by the four guys I saw at the close of play on Saturday cheerfully carrying their prone, dribbling mate onto a packed tram and receiving acerbic Aussie comments of approval from the assembled, perspiring company.
There's a lot you don't see when intent on business during a Grand Prix weekend. That hit home as I took a walk through Albert Park 40 hours after racing engines had finally shut down for another year to begin the process of handing back the park to its true owners; the Melbourne public.
I'd never before noticed the bird song; I'd never seen the Carmelite Tennis Courts, hidden behind screens close by Gate 1; I hadn't had time to check out the public information board showing just how busy this park is when not hosting a round of the F1 World Championship.
There are 21 ovals and playing fields in the vicinity of the main straight, pits and paddock alone. The previously cramped F1 garages, now strangely vast and barren after the partitions and sponsorship backdrops have been removed, are preparing to become indoor sports arenas once more.
But not all legacies of bringing the race to Melbourne are welcome. A man walking his dog mutters something about 'getting our park back'. When I ask is Albert Park not a better place now than when, allegedly, a bit of a dump before the Grand Prix's arrival in 1996, he agrees that it probably is. But the problem is that the hand that giveth also taketh away. 'The park looked wonderful, luscious and green in the spring and early summer," he says. "Then they start getting ready for the race in December. Look at it now.'
You can see his point. The open area at the back of the main grandstand had housed racing car displays that were roped off. With the cars and ropes gone, the place is a stark patchwork of rich green and sickly yellowy brown thanks to the surrounding grass having been killed off through the foot-fall of thousands.
During race weekend, the grass F1 paddock is the centre of our universe for four days; one of the most beautiful and convivial on the calendar. I want to see how it looks now.
If gaining admission to this Holy of Holies is difficult during the Grand Prix, it's impossible now. The entire area is fenced off and officially deemed a building site during deconstruction. You don't get in without a high-viz vest and a hard hat. For once, an FIA credential is about as much use as a parking ticket for the pit straight would have been during the previous week. Because that's exactly what one side of this strip of Tarmac is for 50 weeks of the year.
This is no longer the scene of discussion about the merits of DRS and KERS. The grid slots have been blacked out and, already, parking bays have been painted in white at an angle to the pit wall, green wooden posts returned to the grass verge opposite, along with metal poles carrying information about how long you can remain parked.
The pit straight is once again known as Aughtie Drive, a parkland road where the technical and legal focus has switched from maximum speed to having your vehicle stand still in the prescribed manner.
From here on in, if you're seen driving within one second of the car in front, the Victoria traffic police will probably have you deported. And, if your name is Lewis Hamilton, headlining the local media with state officials cashing in by saying what a truly wicked person you must be.
The Australian Grand Prix continues to polarise opinion in this part of the world. Some object to paying $50 million for the privilege of having Bernie and his boys come to town. Others say the world-wide exposure is priceless, not to mention the visitors' dollars pumped into the local economy.
For those of us lucky enough to work at this race, it remains one of the best - even if we never have the opportunity to sit in the sunshine at Tram Cafe and reflect on the true wonder of it all.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.