Crompo's Impressions from Albert Park


Each year at GP time I trek down to Melbourne and take an apartment in St Kilda nearby the Melbourne Grand Prix circuit. In recent years that has become more about soaking up the cosmopolitan delights of St Kilda and enjoying a break with my wife and not-quite-five-year-old daughters. It used to be a chance to catch up with friends from distant lands who also congregated in the area at that time but clearly age and the global financial crisis have taken their toll as I knew not one soul arriving from afar.

I'll be honest. I was so busy enjoying myself that I nearly didn't bother with the Grand Prix. Judging by the official attendance figures I was part of a minority that did bother. Reports have it that this was the lowest aggregate attendance in the history of the race.

And note the use of the word "attendance". As Pitpass has learned in years gone by, this is a very different thing to the number of people who bothered reaching into their pockets and paying for a ticket given that there have been previous admissions of 'gifting' large numbers of tickets which may or may not have been used.

The Australian Grand Prix Commission has also previously admitted that it does not conduct head counts at the gates, relying rather on "statistical methods" of establishing attendances. Depending on whom you choose to believe this can mean anything from tallying total tickets on issue to including the team members, officials and marshals.

Whatever the rhetoric, I wandered into the circuit for the first time about 10 minutes before Qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Given my late arrival and relative geography, I opted to view the action from the infield in the areas of turns 13 and 14 - a personal favourite.

In years gone by such a late arrival would have relegated me to a lacking view 3 or 4 bodies back from a packed fence line that had been staked out all day by the eager. Not this year. I actually had pretty much my pick of locations and a view unimpeded for yards either side of me. I was able to freely amble between my chosen turns and easily find good, clear space. I'd go so far as to say that I could have let off a shotgun and struggled to hit anyone, not that I routinely carry such a weapon.

The next thing that struck me was the glaring absence of structures I'd grown used to in this area of the circuit. From day one there have been grandstands on the outside of the entry to turn 14 and a quite large grandstand complex on the far side of the gravel trap at the exit. All gone. As were any of those mobile, giant television screens that I used to alternately curse for impeding my view and bless for
allowing me to see replays of missed action from the far corners of the track.

Another notable absence in this area which had become a trusted ally of mine from the very first Melbourne GP was the complex of portable toilets that used to adorn the high ground on the lake bank between these turns. While I am able to accept the impact of the global credit crunch on grandstands and television screens, one wonders what the organisers were thinking when resolving to cut back on loos.

Me, I never made it beyond the paddock complex but a trusted friend and Pitpass devotee, Nestora Strintzos, whose word I have no reason to doubt, spent time at the other end of the circuit and gleefully reported the absence of corporate platforms had greatly improved the viewing between turns 5 and 6 from the general admission areas.

Sunday was a little better crowd-wise even if I still harbour doubts apropos the official numbers. Having my daughters in tow meant setting off slightly earlier. We arrived in the same area of the track half an hour before the race was scheduled to start at 5pm local time. We were still able to lounge under a shady tree until 15 minutes before the event and pick our spot with ease. My kids were sat on my shoulders as well as those of "uncle" Nestora. They did well and lasted for about ten laps before demanding mum take them to a playground. This being about 5 laps longer than most of the "fans" standing either side of us though I suspect they weren't retiring to playgrounds.

Ok, so what about what I saw on the track? Well, you all probably saw much more than me as I've not yet seen so much as a second of footage from the weekend. I therefore guess you hardly need me to inform you that that Brawn are in a league of their own right now.

Perhaps what was not evident was by how much. Even in the early stages of Qualifying it was obvious that these cars were a class apart from the rest of the field. They looked like they were on rails particularly at the telling, high-speed exit of turn 14. Just about every other car in the field had moments there, while Jensen and Rubens seemed to be able to place the cars at will and were rarely troubled by such wobbles.

One point I do have to draw attention to is that whole poo-fight about rear diffusers. I was glad it was mostly seen off in-part early in weekend. That said, I note that the usual trailing protests will hang over the Melbourne result for a while yet. Indeed, what with the diffuser row and the Toyota wing fuss, one had a feeling that this was fast falling into the kind of protest-fest for which Ron Dennis became unwittingly infamous.

Anyway, while three teams who made better showings than their rivals ran such interpretations of the diffuser rules, one alone, in the form of Brawn, looked mightily superior. So much so that I wonder if Brawn may have courted this attention to their rears in order to divert eyes from their noses. Excuse the anatomical vernacular but I suggest you all find some head on photographs from the start at Melbourne and regard the frontal profiles of the cars. The Brawn alone is notable for its markedly broader nose section which droops significantly more steeply and to a much lower height than anything else on the grid. Perhaps here is the car's real ace? Or perhaps it is just another ruse to keep rivals guessing?

As to the rest, Red Bull looked the best of them. Vettel's race so nearly proved as much. And while I've no history of Mark Webber fandom, I must admit to a tinge of disappointment at his first corner torpedoing at Rubens' hands. I'm still a little surprised that the stewards took no interest in that one and that nobody protested. Then again, perhaps the FIA had run out of protest forms by then?

BMW certainly earned a nod too since the car looked tidy, and in the late stages of the race an inspired tyre choice gave them a clear shot at P2 though I doubt they'd have troubled Jenson who seemed to cruise his way through Sunday, controlling the gap at will.

Beyond that it is anyone's guess. I don't think anyone drove harder all weekend than Kimi but for little reward. Fernando made the best of a bad Renault and Lewis must have been nearly as surprised as I was to find himself on the podium. It is hard to believe that the car that lucked into P3 was powered by the same engine as the dominant Brawns. Not that Lewis didn't deserve it. Then again, there was a time in the mid-stage of the race that he was clearly not quite giving it his all. Before you lovers of Lewis shout me down, he was braking a little early into T13 for a while and being particularly tardy on its exit. Forgive my cynicism but methinks the sight of Fernando's rear wing ahead or a nose cone in the mirrors is a great motivator for Lewis wherever he is on the lap charts. In the end, he has a nice trophy for his efforts last Sunday which he earned and deserved.

There is something else I am compelled to mention. I well remember way back to the 2000 Melbourne Grand Prix. I was sat in British Petroleum's hospitality centre on the outside of turn 5, back in the days when there was plenty of corporate hospitality and even I got invites. It was just after the end of the first session of the weekend and I phoned Editor Balfe who was, as always, surely to be called during a race weekend. The reason for the call? Well, there had been a certain amount of press hyperbole concerning Frank Williams' decision to run a young, new driver. Questions were raised. Would this 'child' be up to the strains of F1, could he handle the power, the stress, the pressure? I phoned Balfe to report that in fact Jenson Button, for it was he, had acquitted himself quite well and if anything, was throwing the car about a little too aggressively but that he certainly looked the goods. Lovely to have seen the same wee lad take victory at this same venue where his Grand Prix days began, albeit 9 years on. Well done Jenson and thank you for proving those dolts in the media so very wrong!

So what are my thoughts about this twilight Grand Prix? Well, for one thing, it was not twilight, it was just late afternoon - whatever the press blurb says. Bernie says we have to have it that way because it is best for European viewing audiences. I don't agree but I like it because it means I can sleep in very late and still go on to waste weekend afternoons at a Fitzroy Street café and catch both qualifying and the race. I suspect the many cafes that get to earn money from people like me much later into the day like it too.

From my observations of attendances at the track, and even the grudging official figures, it was not a success. But then one can argue this is about a global credit crunch, rather than bad judgement on Bernie's part. Then again, I did ask just about everyone I met what they thought of the late start, most hated the idea. Here I speak of fans within the track and disgruntled locals who never wanted the race at Albert Park in the first place.

Then there is the small matter of the future of the Australian GP at Albert Park. If one is to regard the local press, Bern has made it clear that while he tolerated the twilight idea this year, next year is to be a night race or nothing. Perhaps this is true? Bern has a pedigree of draconian negotiation tactics as evidenced by reports that Flavio and Ron were recently reminded of as much. Should this be the case, then I think I have seen my last Melbourne GP. While the Australian Grand Prix Commission are falling over themselves to tell us that a night race is a great idea and the incumbent state government is doing its fair share of fawning, even hardcore local F1 fans are shouting NO with a vengeance.

It is too loud, it is in the middle of park surrounded by people's homes, people who never wanted a GP in the first place, and then there is the fact that in the midst of a global financial crisis, a government is already tipping in an alleged 40 million dollars to an event which loses money with dwindling local crowds and which will have to stump up even more money to light a track for night race. In short, I just can't see it happening. Within the next year and a half there will be an election at the government level this concerns and governments tend to rate being voted back into office more highly than pleasing Bernie Ecclestone.

But then, perhaps this is what Bernie wants? Perhaps he has already sold the slot currently held by the Melbourne GP elsewhere and all he really needs is to wind up the Australian public to the point that they demand their local government do not cede to his demand's, thus forcing the local government to break its contract, thus allowing Bernie the win.

Not like Bernie needs the win financially, I'm sure he could pay the break fee with Melbourne out of his petty cash tin or at least from the funds returned to him in the wake of his publically embarrassing tip into Tony Blair's campaign. Either way, I have a feeling it's not about money. Not that I'm suggesting Bernie would ever feel the need to manipulate politics either. You see I have this unsupportable yet strong feeling that the win always mattered more to him than the money. But then you'd have to ask Bernie that one yourself.

"Would you like to make a reservation for next year?" That was the question tendered by the lovely young lass at the reception desk as my wife checked out of our apartment in St Kilda, a brief stroll from the south eastern end of Melbourne's Albert Park Grand Prix circuit. My wife rather politely declined because neither of us thinks there will be a Melbourne GP next year.

But even if there isn't, travellers and even Melbourne locals should regard the following.

So what is my most important memory of this year's Melbourne GP? Easy, I found Café A Taglio in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. No, this is not a paid plug since I gladly paid for every morsel my family and I consumed there. Moreover my daughters declared in the car on the way home tonight that "Carlos Rocks", and they are particularly harsh critics. Owner Carlos is a Colombian gentleman of rare and perfect manners whose very soul infuses any dish you might care to order at his emporium - even editor Balfe would find himself happily at home here. And Carlos' staff measure up magnificently. Too many names to mention but I have a vague recollection of Carlos, Liv, Tove (spelling?) and a particularly filthy hangover which caused my boss to regard me repeatedly at work last Thursday by way of shaking his head and uttering the words "what a waste!"

Glen Crompton

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Published: 31/03/2009
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