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SEPTEMBER 19, 2000

Australia: The Walkabout Grand Prix


The Australian Grand Prix has never had a permanent home in the same way that Italy has Monza, Germany the Nurburgring or Belgium Spa. In fact the race has been held at 24 different locations. It would take a book just to list them, let alone to tell all the stories. It is one of the world's most enduring Grands Prix. At the time of the first event in 1928, many of the great Grands Prix of the modern era had not even started: Italy had only had a national GP since 1921; Germany since 1926 and Monaco wwould not to begin until the following year. And it has been a colourful history with the race moving from circuit to circuit around the country. Being so far from Europe, the centre of the racing car industry back to even the earliest days of the sport, the supply of competitive cars to Australia has always been limited. The Australians always had to make do with what was available.

The very first AGP set the trend with victory going to an imported car - an Austin 7 driven by Captain Arthur Waite. That first event was actually a series of races, based on a handicap system and held at a place called Phillip Island...

The spiritual home of Australian motor racing, Phillip Island was the brainchild of Light Car Club official Bill Scott, who planned the 6.5 mile dirt and gravel track on public roads at Cowes on the island off the Mornington Peninsular in Victoria state.

The island, famous for its penguins, could only be reached by ferry, and for many years, before the construction on a bridge, cars had to be transported to the track by boat.

Scott came up with a curious way of measuring the track, devising a system with a horse and cart whereby, knowing the circumference of the wheel of the cart, and fitting a clicking device, he drove around the track, counting each click and adding up the distance travelled -- for six and a half miles!

He also came up with a series of evocative corner names: Hell and Heaven Corners and the Needles Eye.

There were 10,000 spectators for that first event in March 1928 and in the following years the popularity of 'The Island' grew and the man they came to see was Bill Thompson, who won the race no fewer than three times.

The original layout was altered slightly over the years, but by 1935 the track could not really cope with the speeds being attained and had fallen into disrepair. There had been a string of serious accidents and there was pressure to move the race to a new location at Victor Harbor, 30 miles south of Adelaide in South Australia.

With the demise of 'The Island', the Grand Prix moved through a series of public road circuits, visiting a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in 1938 -- an unsealed 'scenic drive' across Mount Panorama at Bathurst.

A year later the race went west again to Adelaide to a circuit of closed public road at Lobethal. And then came the war.

Australia still had no permanent track racing tracks, and after the war was over and racing began again, the AGP continued on its way from state to state. Bathurst had been surfaced so it hosted the race in 47 and there followed a series of AGPs at tracks laid out on disused airfields at Point Cook in 48, and Leyburn in Queensland in 49.

After that it was onto the streets again in 50 at Nuriootpa (SA) and a year later at Narrogin, the AGPs first visit to Western Australia.

But this was still relatively localised racing. Bathurst in 1938 had been won by visiting Pom Peter Whitehead, but otherwise it was local heroes who did the winning, the man of the early fifties being Doug Whiteford -- a three-time winner.

After another trip to Bathurst in 52, the AGP found a new home, slap bang in the middle of Melbourne in Albert Park. The 4.3 mile track ran around an artificial lake not far from downtown and its fast, sweeping bends and the derring-do of the racers, brought racing to the people. Among those to race at Albert Park in its short five-year history were Stirling Moss and Jean Behra.

Albert Park produced some memorable moments, not least for a local star Haig Hurst, who lost control at the exit of the park and crashed through the perimeter of the track, spinning across the busy Queens Road (avoiding the traffic in both directions) and coming to rest on the lawn of a nearby house, where he stopped to have tea, before getting a lift back to the pits with Stan Jones!

The AGP moved on to Southport (Qld) in 1954 and to the Port Wakefield (SA) airfield in 1955, before returning to Albert Park in 1956. Sadly, however, local political pressure meant that Albert Park, considered one of the best tracks in the country, was closed down soon afterwards.

Today, if you visit Melbourne, you can still drive around the track and marvel at the place and the proximity of the lake!

In 1957, for only the second time, the Grand Prix moved to Western Australia, the eastern racers trekking across the desert to Caversham.

Built in World War 2, the former air base was developed for racing in 1955. Situated 13 miles from Perth, the 2.2 mile track was both dusty and could claim one of the weirder hazards in motor racing -- visiting kangaroos! Because of the long haul across country the fields were small.

It was back to Bathurst again in 58 and then the AGP travelled for the first time to Tasmania, and a road race to rival even Mt Panorama -- Longford.

The 4.5 mile circuit -- the longest in Australia when in operation -- was to the south of Launceston. Super-fast, and extremely hairy, it consisted of The Flying Mile, an undulating straight, ending in a 90 degree corner around a hotel (where one driver, having crashed out, stopped and ordered a beer!) a section between the houses, a viaduct with a high-speed kink and a level crossing! The drivers, of corse loved it and, after years of trying, Stan Jones won the Australian GP of 1959 in his Maserati 250F.

It was back to another airfield in 1960, and to Queensland and Lowood to the east of Brisbane.

The last of the street/airfield races under the Australian Grand Prix title, took place in 1961 at Mallala, near Adelaide. Opened in August of that year, the old airfield had been bought off Royal Australian Air Force as a replacement for Port Wakefield. The race featured up-to-date Formula 1 machinery, although Arnie Glass destroyed his BRM against a tree. The race saw Lex Davison win his fourth AGP in a Cooper. A record still to be matched.

With the sixties came Australia's first purpose-built circuits, the most important of these being the three tracks which were to be the major locations for the Grand Prix until into the early 1970s: Warwick Farm, Sandown and Lakeside.

'The Farm' was opened in Dec 1960, built on a horse racing course just off the Hume Highway in a the western suburbs of Sydney.

Designed and managed by Englishman Geoff Sykes (formerly of Aintree) it was the first truly professional race track in Australia, and the country's premier race circuit between 1960-73. The first AGP at 'The Farm' was in 1963 and was won by Australian World Champion of 1959-60 Jack Brabham.

A year later Black Jack was back, winning the first AGP to be held at Sandown. As with Warwick Farm in Sydney, Melbourne's Sandown was another horse race course, out in the sprawling suburbs. Opened in March 62, it was fast and popular with the drivers. Its arrival as a home for the AGP coincided with the first of the famous Tasman Cup races in Australia and fittingly Brabham walked off with the honours.

The Tasman series breathed new life into the history of the AGP with the top international drivers competing in the events.

The 1965 race took place at Longford but, by this stage, the great road track was becoming increasingly dangerous. The year before Tim (brother of McLaren boss Teddy) Mayer had been killed at the track and the 65 race saw further tragedy with the deaths of driver Rocky Tresise and photographer. Bruce McLaren won the sad event, but Longford was finished as an international racing track. In 1968 the bulldozers moved in to carry out major roadworks and the history of Tasmania's great road circuit was finished.

The Australian Grand Prix had moved on in 1966 to Lakeside, 19 miles north of Brisbane in Queensland. Built on dairy farm at Petrie by Sid Sakzewski the fast and daunting track -- opened in March 61 -- was alongside Lake Kurwongbah.

By this stage the Tasman series was established as an international championship and the event was won by Graham Hill. The following year Jackie Stewart won at Warwick Farm and in 68, Jim Clark won at Sandown.

The race returned to Lakeside in 1969 with victory going to Chris Amon, but with an inceasing number of Formula 1 races being held, the trip to the Antipodes lost popularity among the Europeans and in 1970, the Tasman Cup turned to Formula 5000 regulations.

Frank Matich was the star in those days, winning both the AGPs of 1970-71 at Warwick Farm, the first in a McLaren M10B, the second in his own car, the importing of foreign machinery having become too expensive.

Graham McRae followed Matich with a pair of back-to-back victories in a car of his own building -- both at Sandown in 72-73, but single-seater racing in Australia was beginning to suffer. The early seventies had seen touring car racing eclipsing open-wheelers with the arrival of the great modern heroes Peter Brock, Allan Moffat and Dick Johnson -- and, of course, the power of television.

Warwick Farm closed at the end of 73, the track having insufficient finance for improvements and suffering from competition from a new facility nearby at Oran Park.

Further out of Sydney on the Hume Highway, Oran Park had opened in Feb 62, built on open grazing land, and it developed into one of the major second-generation permanent race tracks in Australia, hosting the AGP in 74.

Another of the second generation tracks, Surfers Paradise followed the next year with Max Stewart completing back-to-back victories in the event.

The days of F5000 were numbered, however, and at the end of 76, the Tasman series fell apart when New Zealand opted for Formula Pacific regulations. There were to be three more F5000 AGPs at Oran Park in 77, Sandown in 78 (McRae winning his third) and at Wanneroo in Western Australia in 79.

There followed a period of confusion. Formula 5000 had gone and Formula Pacific was hardly established in Australia. What regulations should be used for the AGP?

Entrepreneur Bob Jane had an unusual answer. Formula 1! With Australia having a reigning World Champion in Alan Jones, Jane organised the Australian Grand Prix of 1980 at his Calder track for Grand Prix cars.

Calder had been opened in Jan 62, but it was not until it was bought and developed by Jane in Dec 74 that things began to happen. The arrival of the AGP was the result.

Only two F1 cars turned up in 1980, a Williams FW07 for Jones and an old Alfa for Bruno Giacomelli while Didier Pironi was persuaded to take part in the race in a locally-built Elfin. The result was something of a foregone conclusion with Jones, following in his father Stan's footsteps as an Australian GP winner for Williams.

After the F1 experiment, Jane opted for Formula Pacific rules in 1981 and invited international drivers: the then World Champion Nelson Piquet, outgoing champion Alan Jones, Jacques Lafitte, Canam Champion Geoff Brabham and Piquet's protege, youngster Roberto Moreno making his Pacific debut. The locals were well represented too with local FP Champion Bruce Allison, former Brabham driver Larry Perkins, Dave Oxton the NZ Champion, Andrew Miedecke and John Bowe. Australian designer, Jack Brabham's former partner, Ron Tauranac had a near monopoly of the field with his RT4 design.

Remarkably, Moreno won and he was to do the same twice more in the next three years. Losing out in 1982 to one Alain Prost. In 1983 there were no such problems and Roberto trounced Jones and Jacques Laffite, and a year later did the same to Keke Rosberg, Andrea de Cesaris and Francois Hesnault.

By then, however, plans were well advanced for Australia's first World Championship Grand Prix on the streets of Adelaide...