Motorsport

Following the last-minute cancellation of the 2020 Australian F1 Grand Prix, calls went out for the race to be dumped altogether. But rather than fall victim to Covid-19 and naysayers, the event is now well and truly back on track. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Welcoming back the Australian Grand Prix

The start of the 2022 Australian Grand Prix.
The start of the 2022 Australian Grand Prix.
Credit: Antonin Vincent / DPPI via AFP

It might be forgotten now, given the subsequent crush of events and time-warping strangeness of lockdowns, but the 2020 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne was the clumsy forefront of our Covid-19 health orders and public restrictions.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, fans began arriving at the Albert Park circuit to watch the day’s practice sessions. A grand prix will typically run over three days (or four, if you count alternative competitions and the initial day’s displays of vintage cars). There’s practice on day one, time trials to determine grid position on day two, and then the race itself on Sunday. On this Friday morning, thousands were queued hours before the gates were to open at 9am to watch the practice sessions.

Only the day before, the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic, and other countries – notably China and Italy – had already long imposed severe lockdowns. We were well behind the worst of the virus then – Australia recorded only its 100th case on the day Italy recorded its 1300th death – and there was, at the time, inconsistency and uncertainty from our leaders regarding restrictions.

March 13, 2020, was something of a pivot point in Australia’s experience of the pandemic. That afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a directive that all “non-essential” crowds should be capped at 500 by the following Monday, but that, nonetheless, he’d be going to see the Cronulla Sharks play that weekend. He quickly rescinded the NRL appearance.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews moved a little quicker, and that morning, invoking emergency powers, banned all public crowds. Fans were officially told the race was off at 10.30am. The gates at Albert Park never opened. Few would have anticipated that the next year’s race would be cancelled too, and that more than a thousand days would go by between Australian Grand Prix.

 

Much has changed within formula one, and the Albert Park circuit, since. For one, the Melbourne track – which mostly comprises public roads – was redesigned and resurfaced this summer for the first time since its christening in 1996, when the Australian Grand Prix moved from Adelaide. (This year, 23 races on five different continents will make up the 2022 F1 season).

It’s remarkable that resurfacing wasn’t required until now. After Russia’s contract to host an F1 race was recently cancelled, there are now only four street circuits in the F1 calendar: Melbourne, Monaco, Montreal and Singapore. Naturally, these circuits are subject to greater wear, damage and the accumulation of oil than purpose-made racetracks.

The Albert Park circuit was also redesigned. The congestion that was typical of the circuit’s first turn was, theoretically, alleviated by widening it a few metres. Other corners were made gentler, less acute, while turn 6 was generously widened by 7.5 metres – thus massively increasing the speed it could be taken at (theoretically, in this case, 70km/h faster).

The “formula” of formula one are its governing rules, and before this season they hadn’t been changed so substantially for decades. Broadly, there were two problems the rule changes sought to tackle: the lack of “overtaking”; and the giant financial inequity between the 10 competing teams (or “constructors”).

As AFL fans have complained in recent years about rolling scrums and increasing congestion, so the recurring complaint from F1 fans is a lack of “overtaking”. Polling positions, they say, are too predictable a reflection of the eventual podium, and races – notwithstanding mechanical failures or crashes – become dull processions, rather than dynamically shifting packs.

The big answer, formula one’s ruling body (the FIA) thought, would be found in aerodynamics – specifically, by addressing the problem of “dirty air”. When an F1 car cuts through the air – sometimes at speeds in excess of 300km/h – it leaves highly turbulent air for the car in its wake. This can subtly destabilise the trailing car, making it difficult for it to overtake the car in front.

In order to take corners at the speeds they do – in fact, in order for these machines to faithfully stay on the ground – these cars rely on not just their physical mass but also their “downforce”. At high speeds, the airflow surrounding the car accelerates, creating high pressure and a downward force on the car that’s far greater than the car’s own mass. Think of it as reverse lift – or as the opposite function of a plane’s wing. And just as an aeroplane requires a minimum speed to achieve lift, so too does an F1 car to achieve this adhesive downforce.

Downforce is not to be messed with – if you’ve wondered how a car can take a corner at 150km/h, this is a big part of the answer – but the sport’s ruling body saw that it could be maintained principally by the underside of the car, via a raised nose and air tunnels, rather than its “dirty air”-spewing side wings. Enforcing these aerodynamic design changes, the trails of “dirty air” could be significantly reduced thus making overtaking easier.

The other rule change was much simpler: for the first time in F1 history, there would be a budget cap for the competing 10 teams. For a long time, there has been a strong correlation between success and wealth. German team Mercedes, of whom Lewis Hamilton has been the triumphant face since 2013, has won two-thirds of all races between 2014 and 2021. In those eight seasons, it won every team (or “constructor”) championship.

In 2019, Forbes reported that Mercedes was spending about $US430 million every season – a giant figure in which they were only closely joined by two other teams: Red Bull and Ferrari. This expenditure is vastly more than minnow teams, such as Haas and Alpine, can afford, and the history of F1 racing is also a history of the insolvency of smaller, poorer teams. In European football, these teams are relegated. In F1, they just cease to exist.

I should note here that while the F1 rules dictate design stipulations, there remains significant flexibility in their interpretation and application. As such, the cars look different, and while their drivers remain the public-facing rock stars, the various engineers behind the scenes – and the cars they produce – are equal stars in the eyes of the devout fan. And money matters in creating the better machine.

So, in 2021, the first budget cap was $US145 million per team, which will slide to its fixed position of $US135 million next year. This won’t apply, however, to the salaries of each team – from engineers, race-day tacticians, back-up drivers. The Mercedes team alone employs more than 1000 people.

 

So, for the first time since March 2019, the gates of the Albert Park circuit opened – and stayed open. The cars and the track looked different. And this time, the Australian Grand Prix wasn’t the season-opening fixture as it typically had been – it followed races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But there was a record fast lap, achieved by the comfortable race winner, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, while the Australian driver, Daniel Ricciardo – recently employed by the famous McLaren team – placed sixth, earning him his first points of the season.

Importantly, there was a record crowd to see it all. More than 128,000 were there on Sunday, and over four days the combined crowd was almost 420,000 – not only a Melbourne record but a F1 record. Female attendance had also dramatically increased from 25 per cent to 40 per cent. “You wouldn’t want a strike three,” the Australian Grand Prix chief, Andrew Westacott, warned last year after the second cancellation of the event. “You should never take it for granted.”

But after Sunday, the FIA – and Westacott – were cheering and suggesting that Melbourne should have its status as the season’s opening race restored. Pre-pandemic issues of declining attendance, and local dissent, had – seemingly – been overturned. More pressing now for the formula one governing body, however, is replacing Sochi, Russia, in the schedule. A decision is expected soon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Restart your engines".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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