This article was originally published in March 2016
On the eve of the 2016 Formula One season, there is a growing air of negativity around the sport – bad vibes, premonitions of doom, and weird rule changes no one seems to have asked for or really understand.
It's hard to deny that much of the bad press is deserved – the sport is arguably in its worst position since Bernie Ecclestone assumed control of commercial affairs in the eighties – and this column is by no means blind to the current crisis. There is confusion as to which way grand prix racing should head in the future: does it go back to basics, attempt a modern reinvention, or disappear altogether? It's all very interesting, but most people could probably do with a break from the head scratching and soul searching. So, let's put all that to one side for the next thousand words and praise something that is good in F1: it's season-opening race.
Having discovered the sport in the mid-nineties, I really know of no other place that a grand prix season can kick off other than Melbourne's Albert Park. Since F1 arrived at the circuit in 1996 – a move that was not particularly popular with the locals – Melbourne has hosted 18 of 20 season openers. Those two exceptions, both in Bahrain, are best forgotten (and that's convenient, because both were pretty forgettable events).
Pre-96, F1's season-opener had nothing like the consistency it does in the 21st century. Let's take a snapshot from a bygone age: the 1981 season opened on 15 March at Long Beach in California. For 1982 it began at Kyalami in South Africa on 23 January. In 1983 it had switched to the Jacarepagua circuit in Brazil and kicked off on 13 March. The Brazilian track then provided some consistency, bouncing around between mid-March and early April, but in 1990 it was off to Phoenix for round one. That lasted two years before Kyalami opened 1992 and '93, then Interlagos took over for 1994 and '95.
The racing may have been good, but this kind of variation did little for F1; holding the opener at the same place every year makes sense in our increasingly busy and fickle sporting marketplace. It creates a feeling of expectation and of occasion; it's familiar and has built an increasingly solid foundation of tradition – fans of all sports love tradition.
Of course, you also need somewhere that does the significance of the event justice. Albert Park, a semi-street-circuit with some very fast sections, pulls that off. Drivers can just about overtake there, and its close confines give you a sense of the speed and danger that make F1 racing popular. The venue is visually distinctive enough and sticks in viewers' minds; I reckon you could show an F1 fan almost any section of the track and they'd instantly know it was Melbourne, especially the parts with huge 'Melbourne' billboards.
Australia seems like a natural place to start, too. They like sport over there, see. Do it pretty well. And to a European or American audience, many just recently exiting the freezing winter and still slowly thawing, Melbourne's early-autumn sunshine looks positively tropical. Sunshine! Green leaves! It adds to a feeling that the world is heading for longer days and warmer temperatures.
Being staged in Australia also means the race is on at a horrific hour for those European fans. In the UK, Sunday's race will kick off at 5am. On a Sunday. If you're on Central European Time it's an hour better, but 6am on a Sunday sounds, and indeed feels, awful.
And yet there is something special about this, too. For those who do get up, it has become a ritual, the exhaustion and coffee and trying to keep eyes open against the body's wishes. That feeling – no fun at the time – takes on a strangely nostalgic appeal later.
Admittedly, in recent years I've not always felt compelled to watch the opening race live. Only when something out of the ordinary was coming did it feel worthwhile. So I was awake in 2009 and 2014, when rule changes shook up the order. But I didn't feel the need last year, because it was clear Mercedes were in control, and I won't be getting up at 5am to watch a Hamilton-Rosberg cakewalk this time around. I hope I'm wrong – it would be great to see Vettel or Ricciardo or Bottas really take the fight to them this year – but look at the mileage and laps times from testing. Maybe Ferrari will come strong later, but you get the feeling Melbourne will be pretty straightforward for Lewis and Nico.
Still, when I do watch there will be a sense of nostalgia and fondness for the race that I just don't get for tracks like Sepang, Bahrain or Shanghai, even if the racing can be better that those venues. Few modern circuits hold the same appeal, the same emotional ties, as Albert Park. A big part of that, I'm sure, is that it has so long represented the return of grand prix racing after a long winter. In the days before a thousand TV channels and one billion YouTube videos, this was the first chance you got to see moving images of the new cars – no Sky Sports F1 testing reports then. And so I have very vivid memories of utterly incongruous things: the camera panning to Jarno Trulli's Minardi on the grid in 1997; Jean Alesi attempting to navigate a Prost-Peugeot that handled like a boat through turn one in 2000; the late, great Justin Wilson's tall frame protruding from the Minardi in 2003.
And then there are the first glimpses of something special: McLaren's blistering speed and Mika Hakkinen's phantom pitstop in 1998; a 21-year-old Kimi Raikkonen in a Sauber in 2001; Mark Webber's headline-grabbing debut in 2002. The mystery was not total then – we'd seen these cars in magazines, and on a primitive version of Autosport.com. But it was at Albert Park that we first saw them in anger, watched the new liveries blur at speed, got a feel for the season we'd spend the next seven months following. The first race of the season is always going to forge those emotional ties and foster that nostalgia. Keeping it at the same circuit – and a great venue – is a big win for F1.
Now, about the new qualifying format...
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