Like all good postcards, this one from Melbourne has arrived way later than planned. And after I forgot to send ones from Marrakesh and Barcelona. Oops.
Anyway, hello slightly-forgotten-about blog. It’s currently 6:20am, which means my body thinks it’s still 4:20pm (and my computer, as I’m yet to change it back from Australia time). Jet lag is not much fun.
The trip to Melbourne had been one I’d dreamed of making since I first became interested in Formula 1 as a kid, so to finally be embarking on it for my first race as F1 Editor for Crash.net was a real privilege, kicking off what looks set to be a busy, exciting 2018.
It was a race weekend that lived up to all of the hype that had been built up both to me by others and in my own head. Melbourne is a city I quickly fell in love with, being a world away from the hubbub of London. It’s a completely different pace; much gentler, much friendlier.
As is tradition in the build-up to the Australian Grand Prix weekend, many of the F1 drivers took part in some rather unique media events dotted around the city. Red Bull drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen took part in a graffiti session on a pair of Aston Martins on the famous Hozier Lane; Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon of Force India tried their hand at some tennis at Melbourne Park, which hosts the Australian Open grand slam tournament each year; and Valtteri Bottas did a spot of cycling along St. Kilda beach. It was a pretty cool way to see more of the city before hitting the track on Thursday.
The start of the year meant we also had the traditional drivers’ press conference featuring the defending world champion, his rival and the home favourite: Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo respectively. The Thursday press conference was a largely uninspiring affair dotted by brief answers, particularly from Hamilton, who was even told at one point he looked “jaded”. He soon proved on-track that it was nothing more than some winter rust and a general weariness for media engagements, further supported by the briefest possible appearance at the hero/profile photograph session, irking some corners of the photographer corps.
And you can understand why. Posing for a few pictures for the photographers at the start of the year isn’t a massive task; it’s one that just needs to be done. F1 needs its champions to set an example and be good ambassadors, not turn their nose up at media engagements. I’m sure all 20 drivers have much better ways to spend their time than posing for photos or talking to the press – but the media is what keeps F1 in the newspapers and present online. It’s a two-way street.
Alas, on-track, Hamilton was in a league of his own from Q3 onwards. His final qualifying lap was simply stunning, furthering his case for being F1’s greatest qualifier of all-time. The 0.7s gap to the rest of the pack was a daunting warning shot as to Mercedes’ raw pace.
We saw more of that on Sunday as Hamilton stayed in control of the race at the front of the pack, only for some excellent strategic work from Ferrari to outfox Mercedes after striking lucky under the Virtual Safety Car. The two-versus-one situation allowed the team to split strategies, with Sebastian Vettel jumping from P3 to the lead once everything had cycled out before then holding Hamilton back through the remainder of the race.
Ferrari may have won, but it is Mercedes who will be coming away from Melbourne feeling most smug about its chances this year. Unlike in 2017 when Ferrari won in a straight fight fair and square, this time around, Mercedes had a clear pace advantage. It bodes very well for the remainder of the season for the Silver Arrows.
The pecking order shaped up roughly as expected in Melbourne, with Haas being the leading team in the midfield. Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean looked good for fourth and fifth, which would have comfortably been the team’s best-ever result, only for cross-threaded wheel nuts to kill the team’s hopes and leave it with nothing to show for a hugely impressive weekend. Given the likes of Renault and McLaren are likely to outdevelop Haas through the season, a decent early haul would have been important. Come the end of the year, it’ll be interesting to see the cost beyond the 22 points on the day of the issues in Melbourne.
At the back, it looks set to be a tough season for Williams, marrying up with their struggles from pre-season testing. Lance Stroll was forthright after the race, saying the team was “not racing” after trailing home behind debutant Charles Leclerc in the Sauber. By comparison, Marcus Ericsson was upbeat, saying it was the first time in two years Sauber was actually able to race, even if he only completed six laps. Ah, perspective…
The race was marketed as being the start of a new era for F1 as Liberty looked to put its stamp on things, most notably through a new broadcast graphics package. While we didn’t get the full effect of it in the media centre, on the whole it seemed to be pretty decent and well-received by the fans at home. The amount of information put out even to the diehard fan was excellent; you can magnify that effect a few times for a newcomer to the sport looking for more details as they tune in for the very first time.
I was able to tick off a personal goal from my bucket list on Sunday when I managed to get onto the F1 grid for the very first time pre-race. I’ve grids in Formula E and WEC before, but this was something else. The atmosphere was humming as the teams put the final touches to their cars and the usual procedures I’d only ever seen through the TV took place. I’ve always been one for the sensory nature of F1, and the smell of the grid is perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most (not as weird as it sounds, trust me). A colleague told me to try and capture the ‘pinch yourself’ moment for each race of my first season properly on the road with F1 – the grid was unquestionably it.
It was the highlight of a weekend filled with awesome moments both professional and personal. I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to the AFL season opener at Melbourne Cricket Ground between Richmond and Carlton, which was hugely entertaining. I knew nothing about Aussie Rules, but had a good guide to teach me the basics, even if my questioning did attract some strange looks from others sat near in AFL members stand.
But one of the big takeaways from the game, comfortably won by Richmond in the end after a last-quarter surgue, was just how many fans of all different ages were there. A crowd of around 91,000 was reported, with tickets being available for around $20 – Aussie dollars that is, so about a tenner in UK money. That’s how you stir interest and make a sport popular: make it accessible.
Sure, Liberty will never be able to offer ticket prices quite that cheap, but there is a feeling that F1 is slowly being opened up. An interesting step was to invite a number of “digital influencers” to the race outside of motorsport, who in turn would take the sport to audiences that may otherwise not be watching. Don’t assume the diehard fans will keep coming back time and time again.
Alas, those who woke up early hoping for a thriller in Melbourne were to be left disappointed. The challenge of overtaking with these cars and the tight nature of the Albert Park circuit – statistically second only to Monaco in terms of passing difficulty, according to Mercedes – meant there were only a handful of moves for position. Hopefully things pick up as we get to more open circuits such as Bahrain and Shanghai.
Thankfully though, there weren’t many gripes about Halo or the absence of grid girls. Was because all the outraged ‘good-ol-day-ers’ made good on their promise not to watch F1 again? Or because it was a storm in a teacup? The latter, I imagine…
The TL;DR of all of this: Melbourne rocks. It’s warm, friendly, has great food, great coffee, is easy to get around, and is easily one of the best grands prix I have been to. See you next year, ‘Straya.