2015 Melbourne Grand Prix
The tram doors open and at least 300 people cram in to the 256 seater machine from the Victorian transport system. The Grand Prix express from Albert Park to Southern Cross Station in Melbourne is decorated in a myriad of Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, Red Bull Racing, and Williams colours. Jackets, t-shirts, flags and caps cover the tram from wall to wall as the end of the day’s race activity send the crowd home until 10:30 the next morning.
Behind me, I hear two men making friendly conversation, as often happens when strangers are packed in so tightly.
“Are you from Melbourne?” An elderly gentleman asks.
“Nah, I’ve come over from Auckland,” a New Zealand accent replies.
“Oh lovely! Good on you mate… When are you going back?”
Laughter from the many motorsport fans around them ensues, as the good-natured banter between Australia and New Zealand often supplies.
There’s plenty of international spectators from all around the world. This Finnish fan turned out in a patriotic manner to support his national representatives, as did multiple other nationalities.
The number of English accents around the circuit made for an atmosphere more akin to Hyde Park in London than Albert Park in South Melbourne. John, who attended the Saturday afternoon, had come from Milton Keynes in the UK – just for the beginning of the 2015 Formula 1 season.
“I’m from Buckinghamshire, but my son lives in Perth,” he explained.
“I thought I’d come over and since the Grand Prix was on, we’d make something of it. We’ve flown to Melbourne for four days before we go back west again.”
But why do they come so far? What does Formula 1 in Melbourne offer that the rest of world doesn’t?
For a start, the scenery is immaculate. The man-made Albert Park Lake in front of the Melbourne high-rise skyline is one of the great views in world sport. If fans are lucky enough to get three days of Melbourne’s sun soaked, mid 20 degree weather, there is no greater place to be outdoors.
Even with 314000 people at the track, as there were over the three days of 2014, fans are never cramped, or short of a good spot to watch the action.
Secondly, aside from the Formula 1, the entertainment is both constant and varied. If fans want a break from the plethora of on track races they can stroll around the park staring at classic motor vehicles, watching aerobatic displays overhead, viewing the collections of Victorian car clubs, or watching magician Cosentino perform his latest escape act.
Finally, a Formula 1 Grand Prix is unique. The chance to get up close and personal with the drivers and legends of the sport just for that quick selfie, autograph, or two sentence conversation is the reason fans like Evelyn, who arrived from Sydney, queue up for many hours.
“It’s not every day you get a chance to get so close to world champions!” she said.
“Having access to them on the Melbourne Walk was fantastic… I feel that the drivers appreciate the support… I think it’s important as I think they feed off the enthusiasm from the fans, and without the fans there wouldn’t be such an atmosphere at the races.”
A relative newcomer to Formula 1, Evelyn always supports Englishman Jenson Button first and foremost, but loves meeting all the drivers, grabbing selfies and snaffling autographs when she can.
“Usually with the things I get signed, they are framed along with photos with that particular person. I like keeping them as mementos of a fantastic experience.”
“It’s surprising to see how your perception of them from TV changes in real life.”
The intimacy even continues after the race, when fans are allowed onto the track to walk around the asphalt that has been the high-octane playground for the afternoon.
This part of the weekend is extremely popular with fans, as they trace the steps of the drivers and machines they all so immensely respect.
The resulting event is a spectacle that has Melbourne and Sydney at each other’s throats to get, and Adelaide was in on the act until 1995 as well.
However, there has been much opposition to the race in Australia, saying that the event is far too expensive to run. Groups such as “Save Albert Park” think that the benefits of globally promoting Melbourne and bringing in tourism do not outweigh the inconvenience it causes to the city.
Financially, they have a case. The Australian Grand Prix Corporation’s 2014 annual report showed that over 61% of their revenue came from Victorian taxpayer dollars – around $60 million.
However, what they can’t account for is the number of new people in their economy, like John, Evelyn, and the New Zealander on the tram, who bring money to the event via their tourism and fandom for the large scale spectacle of Formula 1.
As with most sports, the Grand Prix is not always the most riveting of events. Many Australian news outlets from news.com.au to the Herald Sun labelled Sunday’s race as “boring”.
Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo tweeted the following message on Monday morning expressing the disappointment of many fans with the race, himself included.
“Would love to have provided more excitement yesterday but that’s how it was. Got some work ahead of us but we’re gonna keep knuckling down.”
— Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) 15 March 2015
But even if the fans were bored by the final race on Sunday afternoon, there was plenty more to this festival of internal combustion than one simple Grand Prix.
The universal entertainment makes it so worth the 30 minute line up to get on the tram.