Thoughts of Melbourne on the back of a Sauber press release

Melbourne is a wonderful Grand Prix venue. It is hard to find people in Formula 1 who have bad things to say about the race or about the city on the Yarra River. The event is well-organized and great fun while the city has embraced the race to such an extent that it is an object lesson for cities all over the world as to how to make the most of the opportunities created by a Formula 1 race. Everyone makes an effort, from the government to the shop owners, to the service industries. They want people to like their city and they want the visitors to tell the world about Melbourne. And Melbourne is reaping the benefits, not just financially - although that is undisputed - but also in terms of civic pride or whatever you want to call it. The people of Melbourne have joined together to make the event a success and benefit the city. They have got together to make a great team. The same can be said of Monaco (which has a lot more experience) and of Montreal, but Melbourne is the we think of when people say: "What is the best Grand Prix of the Year?".

The only drawback is beyond the control of the locals. It makes no sense to have a race in Australia by itself without another somewhere in the Asia-Pacific region and anyone who has tried going out and back to Australia in the same week knows that when it comes to getting any sleep one is struggling. The human body will only do so much. And that is why it is quite easy to spot the F1 visitors because most of them have trouble putting together sentences in the daylight hours (for some, I should add, this is a permanent problem).

Over the years everyone develops different ways of dealing with jet-lag and my own personal cure (although it doesn't work) is to make sure that I get enough to eat and occasional exercise, above and beyond lifting forks and glasses to the mouth. In most places one gets lazy and jumps into a hire car and drives the 10 metres to the hotel, like folk in Los Angeles, but in Melbourne the idea just doesn't seem to be very logical with trams and taxis and everything nice and close together.

The problem is that each evening when you head off home after a busy day in the F1 "office" you find yourself trying to get on a tram or into a taxi surrounded by thousands of Australians who was drunk as skunks and the idea of riding in a tram or standing in a queue with them is really not that attractive a concept.

And so each evening I set off from the track to walk the mile and a half back to the hotel where I stay. Time is short for a Grand Prix reporter these days and so I concluded as I was walking home on Friday evening that I had better get on with my work on the way and I began writing this column as I marched home through the charming tree-lined streets of the suburbs of St. Kilda.

It's the first mobile column I've ever written. It is a nice walk from Albert Park down to the center of St. Kilda. There are some beautiful quiet residential streets if you cut through from Albert Park towards the beach with trees as old as the icy forming dense leafy canopies above you. As you wander along you begin to understand why it is that St. Kilda is famous for housing eccentrics and supporting those who like an alternative lifestyle. I began to suspect this was the case when I glanced into the front garden of a house and found myself staring down the barrel of an old field gun of some kind. It looked as though it dated from World War II and I suspect that it was a something-pounder but as I am not an expert in these matters it is hard to say.

It was a bit strange but once I reached the bay I had forgotten about it and was thinking warm thoughts about Melbourne. Down along the waterfront is a pleasant grassy area of parkland, dotted with grand old palm trees. Ahead is the St. Kilda harbor and pier and the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron building. There is even a bandstand.

As I perambulated along I began to write notes on the back of a Sauber press release about what a lovely place Melbourne has become. There were trams rattling here and there and from time to time I would catch a glimpse of one decked out in Jaguar colors. It made me chuckle. Jaguar is new to F1 this year and here was a clear sign that the team is a novice. Painting up trams in racing colors is not a great idea, because there will always be a driver or an evil pressman who will draw a comparison between the handling characteristics of the F1 cars and those of the tram - unless the car is on pole position. The Jaggie empire had decided to make big push for this race and so billboards, trams, sleeping policemen and drunks had all been painted green and white and everything had "The Cat is back" written on it. This was great except for the fact that Jaguar had never entered a car in F1 before.

A Jaguar engine did once appear in a World Championship race but it was in the back of a Ferrari chassis. Imagine, a Ferrari-Jaguar. That was back in September 1950 when Clemente Biondetti - who is famous for winning four Mille Miglia races between 1938 and 1949 (which was a major achievement when you consider what was going on in Europe in that period) - made his Grand Prix debut at the age of 52 at the wheel of this curious device.

Age was an issue this year in Melbourne because Jenson Button was making his F1 debut at the age of 20 and the chattering classes in the paddock were all warbling about it.

Dredging up the obscure fact about Biondetti reminded me of the previous day when McLaren boss Ron Dennis had hosted a quiz for the Formula 1 press corps at a nearby restaurant. It was all harmless fun with questions about motor racing trivia. It was the chance for everyone to get together and relax before the season began. This being the second year of the event it had become "traditional". Grand Prix people are competitive and that goes for the journalists as well. The competition was keen. Last year the event was won by the British team and there seemed a good chance that victory could be repeated. It quickly became clear that this was not Ron's intention because it would seem biased if Britain won again. So while France, Germany, Italy and the Rest of the World (Slovenia, Austria and so on) were given electronic buzzers, the British team had to use an old handbell. The McLaren judges around the room would then decide whether or not the bell had beaten the buzzer. Judging by the number of little nods and twitches that Dennis underwent he must have been either very nervous or giving hints to his staff members whether or not the British team would be given the chance to answer the questions. This, of course, was very frustrating and the bell was rung so often and so loud in an effort to draw attention to the fact that the Brits had got there first and were being ignored that eventually the string on the bell broke. The Rest of the World won. If it had mattered, it would have caused much affront, but it did not.

Ron then made a jovial speech in which he came up with an idea which I have never heard an F1 team boss put forward before. The teams and the press are always fighting with one another or each other, he said, but really we were all fighting for the same cause and should try to work together as much as possible to promote the sport. We are team mates. It may sound crass when you put in on paper but it is the reality. So long as people are fair and honest with each other in the sport we should all be able to work together and move the whole thing forward.

Ron's little speech was an unexpected boost to my morale. He was right. At the start of the year we are all enthusiastic for the season ahead, excited and keen to know what is going to happen. The only problem is the jet-lag which saps your strength and makes you tetchy and you end up striding through funny little suburbs writing articles on the back of Sauber press releases.

My next thought was to dinner. Eating properly is a good idea and you eat wonderfully well in Melbourne. There is, of course, the eccentricity and pretension about most of the menus which is rather amusing. Chickens are always corn-fed, balsamic vinegar is always aged and every dish is accompanied by a strange bit of greenery with a name that sounds like a place the B52s bombed during the Vietnam War.

One of the restaurants I visited offered a selection of cheese which included "top paddock wine washrind hillcrest mature cheddar". I was almost tempted, but the idea of eating this with "quince paste and raisin bread" was too much. Besides, after the "warm frangipani and pear tart" there was just no room left...

I was thinking on all this and giggling, I suppose, when I passed a man who was zigzagging along, holding a guitar and looking like he was left behind in the 1970s. He was wearing Fosters as an aftershave although he had obviously forgotten the bit about shaving before you put aftershave all over you face.

And then he said something very rude.

I was rather surprised and suddenly I remembered the bad side of Melbourne. It was just not what you need at the end of a long day. One does not expect to be abused just for walking along, writing an article on the back of a Sauber press release. I get abuse just by walking through the paddock at the first race of the year.

Perhaps, I thought, he is one of the last of the dinosaurs who still go on protesting about the race in Albert Park while everyone else is having a good time. Or perhaps he was just one of the eccentrics of St. Kilda. Or perhaps he had been drinking too much of the tea served at the wordy restaurant. I am not sure I would feel very well after a cup of the "unique marco polo, a blend of exotic chinese, tibetan flowers and berries".

Whatever the case, I thought, he had let the side down in Melbourne.

Print Feature