"I'm upside-down, where the kangaroos live," said a journalist into a telephone. "And, you know, there are lots of wombats here too."

Ah yes, Australia. The new season. Melbourne. The favorite city of the Grand Prix Circus. It may be at the other end of the world for most of the F1 people, but they like to go there. Most of the races take place in areas which are rather too agricultural for those who like bright lights and big cities. Montreal is good but too French; Budapest is good but it's in eastern Europe and everything is still a little post-Communist grubby; Monaco is filled with too many rich twerps in white socks and Ferraris; and Barcelona is too far away from the race track. And so Melbourne wins the game to be Formula 1's favorite city and it is likely to hold on to that role for some years to come...

It's a great city and the Grand Prix is a great event. And if it sometimes rains in Melbourne the locals have an expression to give the visitors a little hope: "If you don't like the weather here," they say, "just wait a couple of minutes and it will have changed. You can have all four seasons in a day in Melbourne."

And it has that very unique modern-Australian feel to it. What does that mean? Well... Many years ago, so legend has it, the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus held a competition to see who could come up with the shortest joke possible in the English language.

The winning entry had just two words.

"Pretentious? Moi?"

I am always reminded of this gag when I eat out in Melbourne. It's a great city for eating, but there is a tendency among Australian restaurateurs to over-complicate the menu.

"Our special today," they say, with a dramatic flick of the wrist, "is wok-fried kid goat with a guava glaze and roasted rocket stuffed with a green tomato marmalade.

"But," they add conspiratorially, "I really recommend the Tasmanian langoustine Tortelli cooked in octopus ink."

A lot of the members of the Formula 1 circus stay in the hip and cosmopolitan Melbourne suburb of St. Kilda, which boasts more than its fair share of trendy restaurants with ridiculous menus.

A few years ago in Sydney I went to a place which had decided that it was time to re-invent the pizza and offered such delicacies as a Thai version of the great Italian classic and even something they called The Great Ozzie Pizza. This was a normal pizza with a topping which consisted of a lamb chop and a fried egg. Unusual...

One night this year in St. Kilda I went out to a pizzeria. I wanted a very simple pizza: tomato and cheese with lots of basil leaves. Herbalists out there can draw their own conclusions. There was no such thing on the menu and the waiter said that the kitchen could not handle people making up your own pizzas.

"You can add and subtract ingredients," he said, flicking back his hair, "but we don't do special pizzas to order."

Fine, I replied. I'd like the ham and pineapple pizza. Hold the ham. Hold the pineapple. And add basil. A lot of it."

"OK," he said, "no worries."

A few miles out of town I discovered a place called Maxy's which believes in good honest food without any pretention. One needs a serious appetite to go there. I had been warned about the portions but nothing prepared me for the Weiner schnitzel which appeared. It was the size of a small European country. The entire 101st Airborne Division could have landed on it and dug in, before advancing on the French Fry mountains that were close at hand.

By now you are probably asking: What is this bloke wittering on about food? This is supposed to be a motor racing magazine. A good point. Well, the catchphrase of the Australian Grand Prix this year was "Formula 1 - with the lot!".

Visiting Poms had to be told that this expression is normally used in hamburger joints. A hamburger "with the lot" means that it arrives with everything that the chef can find in the cupboard thrown on top of it, including - if you are really unlucky - a fried egg, a bit of orange and a slice of beetroot.

There is no doubting that the Australian Grand Prix really did have "the lot" with the Aussie motorsport cupboard being emptied into Albert Park. There were thundering five-liter touring cars and NASCARs which sounded like Lancaster bombers. There were whiney Formula Fords, booming drag machines and irritating karts, which always sound like mosquitoes looking for a new vein to tap.

There was a BMW celebrity race, featuring Barbie as one its drivers, although I never did go to check how the world's most plastic female got on.

There is never a moment of peace and quiet in Albert Park during the four days of the Grand Prix meeting. From dawn to dusk one is subjected to air displays and racing cars of all shapes and sizes and drivers of wide-ranging levels of ability. If there was a moment of quiet then a jazz band or a bongo-drum beater is sent in to fill the breach and if that fails then there are the three remaining members of the Save Albert Park movement waving yellow ribbons as they chain themselves to the railings for the 46th time. I think the police should simply take away the padlock keys and leave them there with a big sign saying "Please do not feed the silly people".

If all of this fails to keep the race in the news then Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett pops up for a sound byte or his wild-haired sidekick Ron Walker - who is chairman of the Grand Prix board - says something controversial.

It was Walker who stirred up a "storm of controversy" last year when he "raved" about the evils of team orders. It was just not fair that these Pommy bludgers at McLaren could fix the race like that. The average man in Australia was outraged. Drivers should be left to decide the issue.

When the F1 circus reassembled 12 months after that outburst in Melbourne the locals took up where they had left off and everyone was rabbiting on about the irrelevant issue of "team orders" and how it was outrageous that the F1 drivers had come back to Melbourne and were saying that they were just as willing to do the same thing all over again.

Team orders have been a part of the sport since the very beginning. It is a part of the tradition and not only in Europe. It has been the same story in Australia.

Years ago before I was in Formula 1 I used to visit Australia on a regular basis to watch the annual touring car race at Mount Panorama, Bathurst. Racing at The Mountain was a fabulous but it seemed to me that every time I went there Peter Brock - Australia's most famous and most loved racing driver - was constantly switching between the cars he was running in order to be in the right one at the end of the race. No-one cried scandal then. Brockie was Brockie, a national treasure.

On another occasion in 1977 The Great Race was settled when Colin Bond stopped and had a cup of tea while team leader Allan Moffat caught up and overtook him to win the race in a suitably staged finish...

That aside, Melbourne was a lot of fun and confirmed its number one status as the best Grand Prix of the year. It is this reputation which led the folk from Indianapolis Motor Speedway to turn up to see how to do a Grand Prix properly. This was good to see because it shows that Tony George and his team want to get it right and have not decided to bludgeon their way into the World Championship thinking they know how to do it better than everyone else. One could have understood such an attitude because Indianapolis knows better than anywhere how to host big events.

The greatest mistake one can make in Formula 1 is to not know what you don't know. If it was easy anyone could do it and it is assuredly not easy to take on the big guns of Williams, McLaren and Ferrari.

British American Racing made the mistake last year of telling the world that they could win their first race. Everyone in Formula 1 knew that was a ridiculous idea. Some even said it. In recent months as it has become obvious how difficult it is to hit the big time in F1 the BAR folk have slightly altered their understanding of their comments. You have to believe you can win, they say. You have to really want to win.

The fact is that the early claims have not been forgotten and that is rather sad in a way because Jacques Villeneuve did a pretty good job to qualify 11th on the grid. It would have been impressive from any new team but the problem for BAR was that they had talked up the team to such an extent that 11th was a disappointment - and they had no-one but themselves to blame.

Oh well, the dreams are all a little upside-down now. I didn't see any kangaroos in the BAR pit - but there are one or two wombats...

Print Feature