There has long been a rivalry between the cities of Melbourne and Sydney and that has spilled over into the motor racing history of Australia. Both cities claim the first motor race in the country: Melbourne saying it was an automobile trial which took place between Melbourne and the Aspendale racecourse, close to the Port Phillip shore to the south of the city. The Sydneysiders claim it was a motorized tricycle race at Sydney Cricket Ground. There was also an event at the Sandown racecourse in Springvale, Melbourne, but no-one is quite sure which came first.
There were no permanent facilities and so the races took place wherever the racers found a good place to go. There were road courses, racecourses, airfields, beaches and even dry lakes. In the 1920s, following the international trend at the time, both Melbourne and Sydney built huge banked speedways; the Melbourne Motordrome was an impressive place but claimed many lives. In the end the track proved to be too expensive to maintain and it was demolished to make way for housing.
And so it was back to temporary circuits and, in the immediate post-war era, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation's airfield at Fisherman's Bend hosted races on its runways. The track survived until 1960 but was never very glamorous, having a large rubbish tip and the Melbourne docks as its backdrop. In 1953 a new circuit was tried out in Albert Park, just to the south of the city center. The 4.3-mile track was laid out on public roads in the park and ran alongside the lake through a series of fast bends. It was a big success and the Australian GP that year was won by Doug Whiteford in an imported Talbot-Lago. The racing returned in 1956 with the Australian Tourist Trophy and the Grand Prix, both being won by a visiting Stirling Moss. There were more races in 1957 and 1958 but local opposition led to political pressure and the racing in Albert Park was eventually stamped out.
The local car caring community decided that permanent circuits had to be built and two were constructed simultaneously in the early 1960s: one at Calder, out of town on the road north to Bendigo, and the other at the Sandown Park racecourse in the southern suburbs of the city. Calder was finished first - by a month - and originally it was little more than a loop of tarmac. There were occasional events but it was not until it was bought by racer-turned-entrepreneur Bob Jane in 1974 that things really began to happen. The track was dramatically extended and the ambitious Jane tried to convince Formula 1 teams to send out cars for a non-championship F1 race in 1980. Alan Jones was the new World Champion and Jane hoped that Australians would flock in to see the action. Only two teams agreed to send cars: Williams dispatching an FW07 for Jones and Alfa Romeo sending an old car for Bruno Giacomelli. The rest of the field was made up of local "Formula 2" cars and, not surprisingly, Jones was the winner.
Having failed to get much support from the F1 circus Jane decided to run a race the following year for Formula Pacific cars and pay star drivers to race them. This tactic was more successful and many of the F1 stars of the day turned up to race, although on three occasions the visitors were beaten by Roberto Moreno - who was still to make his name in F1. In 1982, however, even he was beaten by Alain Prost.
Jane's hopes of one day hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix stumbled when the City of Adelaide landed the race in 1985 and so he embarked on an even more radical move and constructed an American-style banked speedway, called the Thunderdome. He introduced a new racing series called AUSCAR and in 1988 hosted a full-blown NASCAR event, complete with stars from the United States. The experiment was not as big a success as Jane had hoped but both NASCAR and AUSCAR races continue to this day.
Calder's rival circuit at Sandown Park was opened in March 1962 and was little more than a track which had been a perimeter road around the racecourse. It was fast, had some challenging corners, and, having a large permanent grandstand and being closer to the city, was rather more successful than the dusty oval out in the sticks at Calder.
The creation of the Tasman Cup for Formula 1 cars was a big help and the first race was held there in 1964 - and was won by Jack Brabham. Later victories at Sandown went to Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and Chris Amon.
In 1970, however, the change of regulation to Formula 5000 rules failed to attract the European racers and so the Tasman Cup faded and was finally abandoned in 1976. Sandown continued to host major touring car races - notably the Castrol 500, which was the annual warm-up for the James Hardie 1000 at Bathurst.
In 1984, in an attempt to bring back international racing, the Sandown track was lengthened with a twisty new infield section, which was not popular. The World Sportscar series did visit with Derek Bell and Stefan Bellof winning a poorly-supported event in their Rothmans Porsche 956. There was an attempt to revive the event in 1988 - when Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass took victory in a Sauber-Mercedes but the event was a financial disaster and was not repeated.
The development of the Phillip Island circuit and the return of Formula 1 to Albert Park. were further blows to Sandown Park, although it continues to be used for national events.
In 1992 the State of Victoria elected Jeff Kennett to be its new premier and he immediately began planning to turn Melbourne into a more dynamic and interesting city, using a series of major international events to give Melbourne a higher profile around the world. One of his first moves was to approach F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and negotiate a deal for the Australian GP to move from Adelaide to Melbourne. An agreement was reached in September 1993 but the first event did not happen until the contract with Adelaide finished in 1996. Rebuilding Albert Park caused considerable opposition - which included violent protests - was overcome by the ebullient Kennett and the first race was a big success. The opposition faded away and although Kennett lost his bid for re-election in 1999 the new Premier Steve Bracks vowed to keep the race in Melbourne.
The race is very popular with the F1 circus which enjoys the party atmosphere of cosmopolitan Melbourne and the pleasant seaside restaurants of St. Kilda.