GLOBETROTTER

Ode to Melbourne

When you arrive at Albert Park in Melbourne, on a bright and sunny autumn morning, there is usually a man standing there, near the gate, offering earplugs and Paracetamol to the incoming race fans.

The ear-plugs are for the damage that is about to be done; the Paracetamol for the damage that was done the previous night.

That is Melbourne. A party town when Formula 1 comes a-calling. Going to Melbourne is one of Grand Prix racing's favourite activities. If they could just get some big tugboats and tow Australia across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and park it somewhere just off the African coast it would be the perfect country.

"You get used to the travel," said the delightful lady I sat next to at the Grand Prix Ball. "You just settle down in your seat in the knowledge that you have to lose 24 hours of your life on a plane and you just do it. After a while you don't really notice."

She was the editor of one of Australia's biggest magazines, a monthly magazine called The Australian Women's Weekly (I didn't ask!) and she loves Paris, where I live. I love Australia, where she lives and so we were a cheerful pair of fellow scribes. Someone had thought very carefully about the seating plan.

I have to say that I was feeling a jaded up to that point. If you pay very close attention to the news you might have read about a minor incident at Dubai International Airport - DXB if you travel a lot - in which a Bangladeshi plane broke its nose wheel and ploughed up a chunk of the runway. The Middle East's busiest airport closed for eight hours. I like to go to Australia and Asia by way of Dubai, as it breaks the journey in a nice way and I think Emirates is a great airline, offering the kind of service and friendliness that has long since disappeared in Europe and the United States. They want to make your journey a nice one. It is not just a question of shoving you on the bus and shipping you from one place to another in exchange for cash.

If you close a big international airport for eight hours, things start going horribly wrong. All the planes are in the wrong places and it take several days to sort out the mess. If you happen to be travelling at that point, it's just your bad luck. My 9pm plane left Paris at 03.40am and so I missed all the connections at DXB. This is one of the risks of being a road warrior and 14 hours is really not that big a deal because one always builds in a little extra time with the Australian GP because of the jet-lag and because there are lots of things to do at the start of a new season. I must also say that the people from Emirates were great. I did not want to go to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysian Airlines but that was the fastest way to get me to Australia. Others had a much worse time than I did. But no matter how good well airlines deal with a crisis it is inevitable that one arrives feeling a little second-hand when you are 14 hours behind schedule on a 26 hour journey. I knew deep down that the luggage was not going to make it and even went to the baggage desk before I bothered with the carousel. They had no idea where my beloved Samsonite had gone. They were Qantas people, dealing with Malaysian luggage which had Emirates baggage tags.

I had to bite my tongue when I was asked if I had anything to declare as I went through customs. Surely, I thought, a customs man needs to be super-observant to be good at his job. An unshaven man with a weary air, leaving a baggage hall with no luggage tells a very obvious story to me.

"I have nothing to declare apart from the fact that I have lost my luggage and I wish to leave and go to sleep." I said, being polite.

For the next two days I did my part for the Australian economy, buying clothes to get me through, hoping that the bag would one day reappear. It took 46 hours before I was able to fondly embrace my old bag.

This was 20 minutes before the Grand Prix Ball and I was happy to throw open the locks and find that the black shoes were still there. The invitation said "Strictly black tie" and the dinner suit I had rented was never going to work with the battered brown shoes that I wear when travelling and pounding around the paddock. But it is wonderful what a suitcase can do for you. Twenty minutes later I was cruising the casino, a glass in my hand, like James Bond in search of Pussy Galore.

Life was good again.

What is it about Melbourne that makes it so popular with the F1 fraternity? Is it just the sunshine after a European winter? Is it the old world charm that still survives? Is it the party atmosphere that pervades the event? Or is the girls, bronzed and toned by sports that European girls no longer play? Parisian women are chic, elegant and thin. But out in Australia you don't get the feeling they will break if you hug them.

Whatever the reason we all seem to like Melbourne and that is why we find it so hard to understand why the vocal locals make such a fuss about the Grand Prix being a bad thing. They don't know how lucky they are. Sure, it costs money, but so do does the Swimming Games which they are also holding at the moment. How many people are going to watch that and travel to Melbourne as a result of seeing triangular-shaped people in swimming pools?

A Grand Prix is all about racing but it is also about filling hotel rooms and putting money into the cash tills of the local community. It is about the image of the city. The Grand Prix Ball is a logical extension of that. I don't often go to Grand Prix Balls but Australian GP supremo Ron Walker was kind enough to invite me this year and I was blown away by the event. Not least because there was a dancing violinist who had the face of an angel and the body of ...

Oh dear me. I felt that I needed a bit of oxygen by the time she was finished playing.

It was world class event. Yes, some of the entertainers have seen better days but the locals liked them. I sat trying to look suitably impressed as I suspect they would do if they had to sit and watch some 1970s British acts performing long-forgotten songs that were part of my youth.

Bernie Ecclestone insisted that his pal Leo Sayer get up and sing and so Ron Walker hastily arranged it and Leo, a real trouper in the old tradition, got up and wove that magic that great international entertainers use to ensnare an audience. Call it charisma. I don't really know. I just know it when I see it.

Often in F1 I wish I saw it more often. Too many of the drivers do not seem to have it these days. Kimi Raikkonen may be the fastest man in the world but people do not get excited about him. When it comes to promotional value he's right up there with a monosyllabic version of Fred Flintstone.

Although it turned out to be Kimi's weekend, the truth is that we will remember Australia 2007 as the race that saw the debut of Lewis Hamilton. Not only is he a class act on the race track but he's a class act with the fans as well. This guy is on his way to stardom beyond the realms of Formula 1.

And as I sat there in the ballroom of the Crown Casino, I found myself asking why on earth the vocal locals in the media love to attack this race so much. This is the Grand Prix that everyone in the world wants to emulate. This one and Monaco, I suppose.

Sure, the date was a problem this year. And the national heroes of the V8 fraternity were not there but Melbourne is still a great place. A great event. A great organization. You can always find faults if you want to: the celebrity race may be lacking celebrity (although local weather girls are big for a home audience). The air shows are nothing new, but they are better than having no air shows. The crowds are huge and enthusiastic. The fans are not negative at all. They are loving it.

Jeez. What a week! Hey, but who is whingeing?

Not this Pom.

I'll leave that to the locals.

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