About a month ago, when I first arrived in Melbourne, I had a sudden realisation during dinner one night.
I was with my mate Ian and his parents, talking about how I could be about to spend a few months in the area, when it popped into my head about the Australian Grand Prix.
“When is that held here?” I asked Ian.
“In just over a month,” came the reply.
The deal was almost done there and then – wherever I was, if I was within a few hours of Melbourne, then I’d be by the side of the track when the world’s finest drivers come to town.
Fast forward a few weeks, and it was Grand Prix day. Thanks to a mainly European audience, the start isn’t until 5pm Australian time, which works out quite well when it comes to getting to Albert Park, the picturesque home of the Formula One circuit.
However, the trains from Ballarat to the city are messed up for the weekend thanks to engineering work, meaning it’s a bus from the delightfully named town of Sunshine and into Melbourne city centre. I’d agreed to meet Ian at about midday, and so allowing extra time, I decided to catch the 9.17am service from ‘the Rat’.
Up early, England shirt on to support our boys, and a cheese and Vegemite sandwich made and packed into my backpack, I got Nat’s bike out of her shed and powered my way down her drive for the short 10 minute ride to the railway station.
And that’s where the day went wrong, more or less before it had even started.
Standing up on the pedals, and trying to get as much speed as I could before a hill at the end of Nat’s street, I felt a sudden crack beneath my foot. Simultaneously, my foot flew off, struck the floor, my whole body lurched downwards, got swung over to one side by my rucksack, and then the front wheel turned on itself.
I was flung off onto the gravel track, sliding along the surface with the bike. I came to a halt. My arm was already starting to hurt, and then there was a warm trickle starting to make its way to my hand….
On the ground, a bike on top of me, blood pouring from my right elbow…I’ve been here before!
I picked myself up and looked around to see if anyone had seen. Not a sausage. It’s a shame, because as two-wheeled catastrophes go, I’m sure it was quite spectacular. To make matters worse, I was also locked out, having secured the door behind me because Nat was still in bed.
“Naaaaaaaaaat,” I called outside her room.
“What…where are you?” came the confused reply.
“I’m outside. Ive fallen off your bike.”
Her blinds opened, and as she squinted, she saw I was doubled over in pain – and then she saw the blood streaming down my limb.
It was dripping all over the floor, and it made me wonder if I’d done some serious damage. I knew nothing was broken, but the amount of blood was perculiar. Nat disappeared inside to get some tissue, while I had a look at the bike.
A pedal had snapped. Something I’ve never experienced before.
Inside, I was stripping off to get the dust-covered clothes off me and to examine the rest of the gravel rash that had covered my right thigh and leg. Thankfully, my bag took the brunt of the force, but I’d managed to rip a small hole in my England top. It was also covered in dirt.
By now, the pain was building in my elbow. Unlike when I came off the motorbike in Thailand before Christmas, the pain seemed so intense inside my arm. I’d obviously given it a hefty whack, and right on the funny bone. It was far from funny, and there was no way I could catch the train.
Instead, I spent the next hour laying down, drinking tea (cure for everything?!) putting my England top through the wash and mopping up my weaping wounds with bits of tissue. I’ve ripped off all the nicely healed scars from my Thailand mishap, and no doubt this lot will leave my elbow in a right mess now! Ironic, considering there was no engine involved!
Anyway, an hour later and I was ready to give getting to the station another go, but this time stayed on four wheels thanks to Nat giving me a lift. With a dust-covered bag, a nasty-looking arm and a soggy footy shirt, I took my seat on the train and headed south.
After an hour, we arrived in Sunshine and swapped onto a replacement bus. I don’t know if its anything to do with the name of the town, but the clouds had started to thin and the temperature was rising.
I met Ian at Southern Cross Station, where stalls of Formula One merchandise had been set up eager to get the early dollars off racegoers.
The whole city had been focussed on the race, with huge streets and stations closed off to enable trams to operate a direct service to the track. I have to say, the organisation was superb – despite thousands of people arriving for the event, we didn’t have to wait for transport thanks to a huge line of trams ready and waiting along the street, each rumbling forward to fill up and quickly moving away with passengers.
We arrived just a short ride later, and went through Gate 2 to find thousands of people watching a V8 support race that was already well underway. Its been a few years since I last went to a Grand Prix at Silverstone, and its always easy to forget the incredible speeds even the support cars can reach before Jenson, Hamilton and co take to the track.
The first huge difference I noticed in Melbourne, compared to Silverstone, is just how close you can get to the track. With just a flimsy cord fence keeping you a few feet back from the steel protective mesh, you’re just a few metres away from the action. It is very much ‘trackside’. Ian told me the part of the track we were at was where Martin Brundle famously flew into the air and flipped over a few years back, and as I looked down the track, it all suddenly seemed very familiar.
We wandered further towards the main start and finish straight, through the crowds and up to the fence at the end of the straight, right beside a huge bridge plastered with Qantas, the Australian airline sponsor of the race. As I watched the action on a big screen behind me, I realised just how familiar the camera shot was as the current support race flew around the final corner and down the long finish straight in front of me.
It’s a shot I’ve seen so many times on the television back home, with so many vital points won or lost at the Australian Grand Prix. It’s the largest single annual sporting event in the country, and its usually on in the middle of the night in Europe thanks to the time difference. Nevertheless, once I saw the Qantas bridge in the foreground, memories of watching the world’s most famous drivers get the chequered flag at the famous circuit from the comfort of my sofa back home came flooding back. And I had a front row position, just metres from the Porsche support cars flying past and slamming on the brakes as they darted into the first corner.
Another thing that felt all too familiar from watching the Australian Grand Prix on television was the weather. The early morning clouds had given way to glorious sunshine, and it wasn’t too hot either. We’re at the back end of the Aussie summer now, and temperatures have definitely cooled off in recent weeks, but it was still warm. It was the usual weather that you see back home, normally while huddled around a warm fireplace and wishing to be in the sun by the track.
Everyone was there for the Formula One, but before the big race of the day, there was plenty of other entertainment. In one video shown on the screens it was explained how the latest F1 cars produce so much downforce to keep them on the road, that if they ran at full speed on a ceiling, it would easily stick to it. Three tonnes of downforce – enough even to attach another car to it and still remain in contact with the ceiling. Quite how they would get it up to full speed upside down is clearly a problem, but a fascinating example of some of the forces produced in the high speed sport.
To demonstrate the power of an F1 car further, a great support race was held. A fast Mercedes road car was lined up against a V8 sports car and last years’ Mclaren Formula One model, but instead of being set off at the same time, they were given a staggered start. As the roadgoing Mercedes sped past, it was another 40 seconds before the Mclaren was given the green light. Amazingly, all of the cars hit the final straight at the same time, with the Mclaren making a cheeky overtake just before the finishing line to take the win. Despite a 40 second handicap, it had caught up on both of the other cars and easily won. It was a brilliant demonstration of how the F1 cars, and their drivers, really are in a league of their own.
Ian and I went for a walk around the track, stopping by at the St John Ambulance first aid station for a plaster thanks to my cycle-related injury that for some reason will not stop bleeding. It was interesting to see just how much paperwork I had to fill in for one single Band Aid, and even more interesting to wonder just what would have happened if I’d let the cadets have their own way with me. It was clearly one of the most exciting things to happen during the day for them, and I think I was one step away from being sent for an MRI scan of the head and X-Rays at the hospital, such was the seriousness they dealt with me. I jest of course, but it did all seem a bit over the top!
Thankfully it didn’t take too long, and we walked over to the lake, making our way across a clever little floating bridge and to the opposite side of the track. It took us to the long, high-speed, gently curved section by the lake, another part of the circuit which leaves you feeling incredibly close to the action.
We continued walking all around the lake, and by the time we reached the start of the pit lane, the drivers’ parade lap was underway. I managed to get a photo of Jenson Button, but was too busy loudly shouting “Come on Lewis” as he passed in a classic convertible to get another photo. I think he heard me too – there were not too many British fans around me, it was all a bit quiet on the corner I was at, and he quickly waved back at us!
With time ticking on, and just an hour to go before the start, we started walking back to the first corner. Overhead, Australias equivalent to the Red Arrows were performing their display – not a patch on our Reds of course, mainly due to slow propeller engines and the fact there aren’t as many of them – and I managed to peer over the fence of the international television compound.
There were rows and rows of impressively large satellites, beaming all the action to countries around the world and to millions of viewers. For someone who works in television, the geeky side always comes out, and its always fascinated me how they bring such huge events to an even bigger audience so well. Even new boys Sky Sports had a scaffold tower studio, although by all accounts, their coverage wasn’t a patch on the BBCs…but then I would say that.
Back at the start and finish straight, and with 40 minutes to go, we managed to grab the same great spot to watch the start, right by the famous Qantas bridge and with enough sight of the first corner to see any drama unfold. There was yet another aerial display before the start, this time by the Grand Prix sponsor Qantas who threw one of their Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets, complete with F1 markings, into the sky for a bit of an air display.
Its fair to say it was a bit of a show stopper – most people can relate to the aircraft as long-distance routes from Australia almost always use a huge airliner like the 747, but to see one being flown so low, so slow and being turned around on a sixpence was just so different. I’ve never seen such a display by a passenger aircraft, and it was great to watch as it did about four circuits, each time performing another new manoeuvre to please the crowds. Finally it made one last flight over before the pilot threw it into full throttle and accelerated high into the sky and away, no doubt back to the nearby airport.
And then another sound filled the air, as the unmistakeable scream of an F1 engine approached from the pits. And then another. And another. Before long, they were all out on the track and heading around to their start position on the grid.
The tension mounted as the parade lap got underway, each of the cars filing past us and lining up back on the grid. I watched as the last cars got into position and the lights went red. The feed was the same shot the viewers back home, wherever home may be in the world, were watching. Just a couple of hundred metres to my left, the unmistakeable sound of more than 20 multi-million pound cars screaming through the revs grew into a crescendo, and then they were off. Within two seconds, they were right in front of me, the deafening noise filling my ears as Jenson Button led the pack into the first corner.
There was drama straight away, as a number of cars clattered into each other on the first turn, prompting one to make an early pit stop. As they disappeared from view, the sound quickly disappeared into the distance as they made their way around the back end of the track. Just a minute later, they’ve covered the 3.3-mile circuit and the sound grows yet again before the unmistakeable howling, screaming engines fly past in the blink of an eye. The noise truly is deafening – an ear-ringing-inducing level that is impossible to describe without having actually experienced it in person.
Its also hard to explain just how fast the cars pass. You barely have time for your brain to process who the driver is before they’ve passed on yet another of the 58 laps. Taking photos is almost impossible, especially from behind the steel safety fence which prevents my camera from focusing on the track behind, let alone an object moving along at 180mph.
Undeterred, I did manage to get a couple of photos around the circuit which I feel summed up the day, including a few from the other side of the lake where we stayed for the final stages of the race, cheering Jenson Button on to victory, much to the disdain of my Aussie companion and the rest of his countrymen around me cheering on their man, Mark Webber.
In the end, Webber finished fourth, but up on the podium were Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Jenson led from start to finish, and who knows, perhaps it’s the first win of many this season. It would be great to look back on the season if he won the championship and know that I was there, trackside in Australia, to see his first win of the year.
As the British national anthem sounded around the track, we made our way towards the pit lane as thousands of people spilled onto the circuit. I joined them, climbing over a metal marshalling railing and walking along the main straight to the lights.
It was a great feeling, walking along the famous straight that just a few moments ago, the likes of Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, reigning champion Vettel, Jenson and Lewis had been guiding their mega machines along. The skid marks were still fresh, the smell of burning rubber was still in the air, and as the sun began to set, I watched as the F1 teams in their garages began packing away their travelling circus.
Further along, scrutineers were still picking over the cars, analysing them to check they fall within racing guidelines. Jenson’s Mclaren was still in one of the garages, fresh from its winning race, while on the other side of the fence, just two metres away from me, Alonso’s bright red Ferrari was still making a range of clicking noises as it cooled down.
Soon it too was put onto a trolley and rolled into the bay where it was weighed and measured. It’s the sort of stuff you would never see on the television, and interestingly, it was something you would hardly ever see at Silverstone.
Because the race is at the end of the day in Australia, people are almost encouraged onto the track at the end, something that you definitely can’t do back home. It provided a whole range of photo opportunities, and I joined the scores of others capturing great shots on the track – including in the pole position spot where just a couple of hours ago, Jenson Button had lit up his tyres and headed off towards my vantage point, and ultimately, the first win of the season.
As darkness fell, I picked up a souvenir to take home – quite literally. If you watch F1 on the television, you often hear commentators talking about ‘the marbles’ at the side of the track, the small pieces of rubber that fly off the huge tyres as they wear down. Before I left the track, I bent down to peel a few bits off the tarmac, and gathered a few loose bits at the side of the straight.
They had a similar consistency and feel to Blu-Tac, and I put a small handful into my pocket. It’s yet another unique souvenir that for me, money can’t buy. It’ll go home with me, and take up a place with other bits I’ve picked up around the world, like my bullet casing from HMS Grimsby when I sailed onboard in the Gulf, volcanic rock from the Canaries, sand from the Normandy beaches and various other keepsakes. Some might call it tat, but for me, every item has a story behind it.
Ian and I walked to the tram stop, still catching up on what we’re both up to and talking about the days events. Next week, the Grand Prix will happen all over again in Malaysia, with yet another audience of millions around the world. Its one thing watching on the television, being lulled by the constant hypnotic sound of the engines as the whiz around the track, but it’s an exhilarating, exciting and thrilling day to see the world’s best drivers fly past your eyes, almost within touching distance.
Next year, and for years to come, I’ll be watching the sun-drenched spectacle from the opposite side of the world, probably huddled in front of a fire away from the cold outside, and no doubt remembering the time ‘I was there’.