Australian GP

With the F1 World Championship about to start all over again in Australia, Mike Doodson is already packed for his trip to Melbourne. He looks back on some of his past adventures in the lucky country

Reading all the Doomsday stuff in the newspapers about carbon emissions, I'm beginning to feel that I may be partly responsible. With almost 40 years on the road as a motorsports writer behind me, my carbon footprint must be disproportionately large. I must have been to North and South America at least 40 times each, Japan for all but a couple of the GPs at Fuji and Suzuka, and countless trips to Europe in between. So, yes, I'm an extravagant traveller. I have a conscience about these things, of course, so these days I recycle my rubbish where possible, buy my organic vegetables in paper bags and don't drive a big car. Still, I make no apologies at all for my forthcoming trip to Australia, because it's the best destination that my career in F1 has ever taken me and I cannot resist the temptation to go back again.

Among my fellow journalists there are a few spoilsports (strangely, most of them are French) who resent all those hours spent crammed into an aeroplane en route to the land down under. Once you're there, though, it's almost all wonderful. Nice cities, great climate, knowledgeable locals and a terrific welcome. Though they pretend to hate the Poms, that's just bluster, of course, most of it involving cricket. Australia is now a multi-ethnic nation, and that's to be applauded, but lurking in the national psyche there's a comforting little section, like that corner of their flag, which acknowledges the contribution which a small group of islands on the other side of the world has made to Aussie culture.

One of the best things about Australia and its people is the importance they put on mateship. At least half of my closest and most valued friends are Australians, and distance makes no difference, because even though we don't see much of each other, they're all quite happy to pick up exactly where we left off a year or two ago. That's what mateship - the cement which binds together people who live huge distances apart in a big country - is all about.

The Aussie who brought me to Australia for the first time was one of these mates. Gregg ("Pee Wee") Siddle is a gentle giant of a man, quick-witted, jovial and affable in typical Aussie style. He and his family don't even groan when I show up in Sydney to flop on their sofa for a few days. Pee Wee is one of the back-stage heroes of the country's motorsport, well connected with some of its great motorsport names. He came to England in the mid Seventies to set up and run an F3 team for Geoff Brabham, and in 1978 he did the same for Nelson Piquet. It was through him that I got to know Nelson, who carried off that year's senior British F3 title.

Some time in the late summer of 1981, I got a call from Pee Wee asking me if I would be interested in writing some promotional material for the Formula Pacific Australian "GP" which Bob Jane was planning for his little Calder Park track on the outskirts of Melbourne. When Pee Wee mentioned that a free ticket to Australia was part of the deal, I didn't hesitate.

It was a star-studded line-up which must have cost Mr Jane a fortune, even though they were only driving 1.6-litre Formula Pacific Ralts. As I remember, the drivers included Nelson Piquet (newly crowned World Champion), Alain Prost, Jacques Laffite and a group of locals, among them Alan Jones, a youthful John Bowe and the unpredictable Alfie Costanzo. I wrote profiles of all the overseas visitors, faxed them to Pee Wee and could hardly contain my excitement as I counted down the days to departure.

At the time, not even Bernie Ecclestone was thinking about Australia as a Grand Prix venue. In fact, I distinctly remember him telling me that the time difference made the prospect of an Australian race very unattractive. What he didn't know then was that a full-on F1 Australian Grand Prix - still four years away - would become a political football, with state premiers vying for Bernie's favour and lashing out millions to sweeten the negotiations.

Most of what I knew about Australia had been gleaned from Alan Jones, who painted a golden picture of his homeland. But it was still an unknown country, full of strange and usually venomous animals. Pee Wee told me that Nelson didn't show any interest in going until informed that tame kangaroos sold newspapers on every street corner. For someone from Brazil, I suppose that probably didn't seem too far-fetched.

The tiny one-mile Calder circuit, a sort of Aussie Mallory Park with just three corners and rather too much dust, was hardly in the Spa-Francorchamps class when it came to challenging the drivers. Bob Jane's "Grand Prix" attracted a decent crowd and a strong contingent of pressmen from Melbourne and even further afield. To a man, I discovered, the local journos were all F1 experts ... thanks to the BBC's broadcasts and a subscription to Autosport. The one driver about whom they knew nothing was the man who won, Roberto Moreno, in Pee Wee's car. Fortunately, they had my crib sheet on Moreno, so the reports of his triumph carried plenty of personal detail.

Bob Jane ran his race for another couple of years, and Moreno, amazingly, won it three times. It was in 1982, the second year, that I had my most memorable experience at Calder. This story stars Alan Jones, who for once had managed to land a major local sponsor, the distributor of Seiko Lasalle watches. Jonesy had been whingeing for years about how his rise to the top in F1 had been ignored by Australian sponsors, but here he was at last, his achievements recognised by a multi-national company.

The theme of the campaign was elegance, with Alan in the role of a super-smooth man-about-town. Posing in a white dinner suit, with his hair glossed down, this startlingly unlikely James Bond wannabe stared out from the sides of Melbourne trams and his figure loomed over the city from massive billboards at five times life size.

Unfortunately, Jonesy was a lot less demure after first practice at Calder. It turned out that the engines tuned by Larry Perkins had a distinct advantage over the competition - and Alan was using Brand X. In fact, Larry had built four of the screamers for three drivers, with a fourth standing by as a spare. Alan quickly decided that he wanted the spare.

This did not go down at all well with Larry, who had memories of being pushed off the track by Jones when they were contesting an important F3 race at Brands Hatch some years earlier. But Jonesy was not to be put off. He strong-armed Bob Jane into agreeing to let him have the fourth engine, even though it would not be available until after the end of the Sunday morning pre-race warm-up session. His crew performed a quick change, and (to Larry's disgust) the 1980 World Champion went to the line with Perkins power.

Alas, though the car went to the line, it failed to come off it. When Alan released the clutch, the flywheel inexplicably came off the end of the crankshaft and he was out. He stormed off in the direction of the nearest bar.

Several hours later, long after the race had ended, a somewhat unsteady Jones wandered back to his team's section of the paddock, which was now almost deserted. I know, because I was there. The garages were open-fronted wooden stalls, and standing in the shade was his Perkins engine, all crated up ready for return. Stepping out of the bright sunshine, our hero tottered forward, unzipped himself and proceeded to relieve himself over the engine.

It was only as his eyes adjusted themselves to the shadow of the garage that Mr Elegance, the dashingly handsome centre-piece of a major watch-selling campaign, realised that he was not alone. Standing at the back of the garage were the directors of Seiko Lasalle, accompanied by their fragrant, taffeta-clad wives and well-behaved children.

I have never dared to ask Alan if the final payment ever arrived ...

By 1985, of course, Adelaide was staging Australia's first F1 Grand Prix. The elected representatives of South Australia decided that the taxpayers would be happy to spend their money on motor racing, and the fans poured in. Having the race at the end of the year was the master stroke, because it added a delightful end-of-term note to the race. Usually the championship had been decided, so the gloves were off and we saw a flat-out battle. Many of us (not the French) stayed on in Australia for a holiday.

Eventually, of course, Melbourne stole the race away. Adelaide was never the safest of tracks, and as the deluges of 1989 and 1991 were to prove, the drainage left a lot to be desired. But I will never forgive Melbourne for putting the race to the beginning of the season, all because of a horse race. Why don't they move the horse race to Easter, so that we can enjoy Melbourne at the end of the F1 season? Dammit, the nags only do one lap ...

It's bizarre to reflect that the future of Australia's Grand Prix is now far more secure than Britain's. It's all down to money, of course, and the reluctance of the British government to invest in the race. While the vast majority of GP events are bankrolled by long-suffering taxpayers, Silverstone actually pays tax on the meagre gate money which is all it's left with after handing over the entire facility to Mr E for four days.

For all this, Australia has to thank Ron Walker, a politically powerful man with lots of insight and a somewhat cavalier attitude to anyone who doesn't agree with him. Which is why I always agree with him.

A couple of years ago, Mr Walker stepped into the Media Centre just before qualifying to check that the journos were happy. They never are, of course. 'Everything alright up here?' he asked me as he gazed out over the packed grandstands.

'Fine up here, Mr Walker,' I responded, 'but not too clever out there.'

'What's wrong?' he asked, unaware of the fact that he was standing alongside F1's most pedantic hack.

'Oh, it's just that all the national flags flying over the start/finish line are the right way up except the British one.'

Seldom have I seen a public figure leap so vigorously into action. Minions were summoned, walkie-talkies were activated and within minutes someone had run down the Union flag and flipped it to its correct flying position. Anyone would have thought that this transgression had stymied his chances of a knighthood.

Thanks for spending all of that Victorian money on the Grand Prix, Mr Walker, and you'll be seeing me again next week.

Oh, and for the tree huggers among you, I've just realised I don't need to apologise. Apparently the plane was going to make the trip anyway.