Motorsport’s biggest roadshow rolls into Melbourne this weekend, as the F1 season kicks off with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, and it’s begun with an awful shock, as stalwart Race Director Charlie Whiting died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, aged just 66, on Thursday morning in Melbourne.
But regardless, the show will somehow go on, despite losing the man that controlled it so well for 22 years.
Bernie is retired, Herbie Blash is retired, and now Charlie is gone- The old Brabham crew have disappeared from the grid.
1985: The ‘official’ Australian Grand Prix
Prior to 1985, the Australian Grand Prix was simply a domestic race that rotated around the country, and was won by famous names like Sir Jack Brabham, Sir Stirling Moss, Bruce McLaren, Sir Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Alan Jones and Alain Prost.
But it would finally debut as part of the F1 World Championship in 1985, the brainchild of businessman Bill O’Gorman, who convinced Premier John Bannon to get behind it, so a contract was signed with Bernie Ecclestone.
From day one the Adelaide streets were a smash hit with the paddock.
The track itself, mapped by Dr Malcolm Hemmerling (Who later led the Sydney Olympics), was described as the best on the calendar by the drivers, namely Triple World Champion Nelson Piquet, and the professional organisation of the event led to Bernie Ecclestone awarding the promoters the Formula One Promotional Trophy, and declared that other Grand Prix organisers would have to raise their game.
As for the racing, Ayrton Senna started from pole in his Lotus, but the 81 lap journey was a war of attrition in 35 degree heat, as only 8 of the 25 drivers would finish.
Senna didn’t see the finish due to an engine failure, and neither did 3-time World Champion Niki Lauda in his final race, who was leading on lap 58 when he suffered a brake failure on the Brabham Straight and ended up in the wall.
Alan Jones, in his 100th Grand Prix start, was the only Australian in the field, and qualified in 19th in his Lola. He would end up dead last by the end of the opening lap, but charged up to 6th before his race ended on lap 21 due to electronic failure.
It was 1983 World Champion Keke Rosberg who won the race for Williams, being the last of his 5 career wins, 4 of which were on street circuits (The other three being Monaco ’83, Dallas ’84 and Detroit ’85).
1986: Nigel Mansell’s title chances blow up
Going into Adelaide, three drivers could have won the Championship- Nigel Mansell (70 pts) and Nelson Piquet (63 points) of Williams, and the defending champion Alain Prost (64 points) of McLaren.
On Lap 64, Piquet led from Prost with Mansell in 3rd, and in position to win his first World Title.
But the man with the best moustache in motorsports saw his chances go up with a bang on lap 64, as the left rear tyre on his Williams-Honda let go at 290 km/h down the Brabham Straight. Through sheer fortune and good car control, Mansell avoided making heavy contact with the wall and pulled up down an escape road.
Funnily enough, Keke Rosberg’s McLaren had a puncture from the lead the lap prior, and the Finn retired with what he believed was an engine problem, only to realise in despair that he could’ve pitted and kept going.
Williams called Piquet into the pits on lap 65 as a precaution and Prost took the lead, while the Brazilian furiously made up ground as ‘The Professor’ ran low on fuel, but he held on to make it back-to-back championships by 4.2 seconds, with Piquet making up 11 seconds in the last 2 laps.
Prost also became the only driver to win the Australian Grand Prix in it’s domestic format, and as part of the Formula One World Championship.
Had Piquet won, it would’ve been his world title, but nevertheless, he went one better the next year, defeating Mansell as the Williams-Honda dominated the season.
1991: The shortest race in history
This edition of the Australian Grand Prix holds the record for the shortest race in the history of the Formula One World Championship, with a torrential downpour leading to the race being stopped on Lap 17 after just 24 minutes of racing, with several drivers spinning around the circuit, including Mansell, who was injured in a violent spin into the wall on Wakefield Street, while Senna’s teammate Gerhard Berger spun off on lap 16.
After some desperate gestures from Senna, the race was red flagged on Lap 16 and was eventually backdated to Lap 14, allowing Mansell and Berger to regain their podium places.
1993: Senna’s last win
Despite putting up a typical Ayrton Senna fight in a crappy McLaren-Ford against the all-conquering Williams-Renault and it’s technological wonders (Active suspension, traction control, anti-lock brakes), his hated rival, ‘The Professor’ Alain Prost came back from his sabbatical and won his 4th title.
After 3 attempts at the race start due to stalled cars, Senna would start from pole ahead of Prost, with Damon Hill in 3rd, and that was pretty much it- Senna led 74 of the 79 laps (Only dropping from the lead to pit on lap 24) in a near flawless performance to win from Prost by 9 seconds, with Hill trailing a further 24 seconds behind in 3rd, though he did set the lap record for the Adelaide track, with a 1:15.381 on lap 64.
On the podium, the old rivals embraced in what would be the last Grand Prix in which they competed against one another, due to Prost’s retirement.
It was Senna’s 41st and final victory in Formula One, and after the race he appeared on stage during a concert Tina Turner was performing, and she dedicated “The Best” to him.
It was McLaren’s last Grand Prix win until the 1997 Australian Grand Prix (David Coulthard), and it was the last for a Brazilian driver until Rubens Barrichello won the 2000 German Grand Prix.
Very sad to write about, considering what happened to Senna a few months later.
1994: Schumacher & Hill
It was only fitting that one of the darkest Formula One seasons on record would end with one of the most controversial incidents on record, one that would ultimately decide the 1994 Driver’s Championship.
Going in to the race, Bennetton’s Michael Schumacher was on 92 points, with Williams driver Damon Hill ghosting him on 91.
On Lap 36, race leader Schumacher made a mistake and hit the wall at Turn 5 (The East Terrace), before coming back on the track, as Hill arrived on the scene.
Then, the German turned in and they made contact, sending Schumacher into the wall and out of the race.
The contact broke Hill’s front left wishbone and forced him to retire, giving Schumacher the first of his 7 World Titles.
“There will be people, of course, who say… that was a desperate manoeuvre by Schumacher to stop Damon Hill winning the championship.”Murray Walker.
It was ultimately judged a racing incident by the stewards, but many people, especially the British, still feel otherwise.
For the record, Hill’s teammate Nigel Mansell won his 31st and final Grand Prix from Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger and McLaren’s Martin Brundle, leading to a memorable press conference with Schumacher in tow.
Hill, despite later winning the 1996 World Championship, remained furious about the incident for years, but he has since forgiven Schumi.
1995: Farewell to Adelaide
Mika Hakkinen won the 1998 and 1999 Driver’s Championships, but he very nearly died during Friday Qualifying in 1995, when he suffered a puncture at Brewery Bend, sending him flying into a barrier at 195 km/h, causing him to smack the steering wheel, which fractured his skull.
Two volunteer doctors, Jerome Cockins and Steve Lewis, arrived at the scene within 15 seconds, while F1’s on track medical chief Professor Sid Watkins restarted Hakkinen’s heart twice, and performed a cricothyroidotomy (An incision to create an airway), while in a stroke of good fortune, the old Royal Adelaide Hospital was located just 500 metres from the crash, and the Flying Finn made a full recovery.
It was a fairly uneventful race, except for Williams.
With the championship already decided comfortably in favour of Schumacher (again), Damon Hill started on pole, but was overtaken by Williams teammate David Coulthard, who led until Lap 20, when he prepared to make his first pit stop… only to completely arse up his entry and hit the pit wall. No wonder DC never won a title.
Meanwhile, Schumacher later retired after a collision with Jean Alesi, leaving Hill uncontested in the lead.
And being the only leading driver remaining, with the best car on the grid, Hill annihilated what little remained of the field to win by 2 LAPS from the smoking Ligier (They were sponsored by Gitanes) of Olivier Panis, equaling the greatest winning margin in Grand Prix history (Jackie Stewart in Spain, 1969).
Attendance over the weekend was an estimated 520,000, including 210,000 on raceday- A record for a Formula One raceday until the 2000 US Grand Prix at Indianapolis had an estimated 250,000 (Of course it does have a greater capacity being a major race circuit)
Bon Jovi ended proceedings that evening with a concert at Victoria Park, and the streets of Adelaide wouldn’t be used for racing until the Adelaide 500 carried on the legacy in 1999.
1996: Melbourne takes over
In 1993, thanks to some lobbying and good planning from Melbourne businessman Ron Walker and the Kennett government, Melbourne won (South Australia would say stole) the contract to host the Grand Prix, beginning in 1996.
It also saw Australia shift from being the traditional season ending race, to the season opener in March, thus creating a rare one-off situation where the same Grand Prix was held consecutively in the F1 Championship.
It was Michael Schumacher’s first race for Ferrari, while it was also the debut for 1995 Champ Car champion Jacques Villeneuve, son of the late Gilles Villeneuve, who stunned everyone by qualifying on pole position ahead of his Williams teammate Damon Hill.
This was also the first Grand Prix to start with the 5 red light system, which is still used today.
Villeneuve led into Turn 1 as Hill was swamped by the Ferraris of Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, while further back Martin Brundle in his Jordan had a frightening rollover at almost 300 km/h heading into Turn 3.
But in a testament to the safety of the cars, Brundle got out unhurt, ran back to the pitlane got a clearance from Sid Watkins, hopped in the spare car… and then went off again at Turn 3 on the restart.
The Williams pair dominated as Schumacher struck brake trouble and retired, with an epic fight for the lead going on throughout the 58 lap race.
With 5 laps to go, Villeneuve’s Renault engine lost oil, causing him to slow down and leaving him a sitting duck for Hill, who took the lead and streaked clear to yet again win the Australian Grand Prix, while Villeneuve would finish an impressive 2nd place, with Eddie Irvine a day back in 3rd on his Ferrari debut.
Actually, it was a minute back.
Brundle’s accident was the first big one at Turn 3, but it sadly wasn’t the last. In 2001, Villeneuve collided heavily with Ralf Schumacher, which resulted in the death of track marshal Graham Beveridge (Who was struck by a flying wheel), and in 2016 Fernando Alonso crashed after hitting Esteban Gutierrez at 300 km/h, causing him to hit the wall and roll several times (At a peak impact of 46G).
2002: Mark Webber’s debut
It’s funny looking back now, but Mark Webber was only supposed to appear in 3 races for F1 minnows Minardi in 2002, but regardless, became the first Australian to appear in a Grand Prix since David Brabham in 1994.
Going down to Turn 1, Ralf Schumacher climbed over the rear of polesitter Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari (The photo in the introduction), sparking a massive pile-up which caused eight cars to retire. Somehow Webber, qualifying in 18th, avoided the carnage.
With cars slowly suffering mechanical retirements, Webber found himself in 5th place, but lost top gear as he tried fending off the faster Toyota of Mika Salo. With a lap to go, Salo spun trying to pass Webber, securing a memorable 5th placing and Minardi’s first points in 3 years.
The subsequent celebrations led to Webber and team boss Paul Stoddart appearing on the podium after the race, which would end up being Webber’s only podium appearance in Melbourne.
The result also meant Webber was signed until the end of the season, and he finally gave Australian fans someone to rally behind in Formula One.
2009- What the hell is a Brawn?
When Honda F1 collapsed at the end of 2008, few could have predicted what would happen in 2009.
Everyone except Ross Brawn, who had been preparing a car for the new regulations for over a year when Honda still existed (The Japanese company effectively funded the team in 2009 as part of Brawn’s purchase).
They had no sponsors, a standout white and fluoro green livery, but when the Brawn debuted in March testing in Barcelona (Just a fortnight before Australia), Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello (Formerly Michael Schumacher’s bridesmaid) topped the timesheets with Mercedes engines, and when Melbourne came around, it was no fluke.
Button qualified on pole from Barrichello, with both cars at least 3-tenths faster than Sebastian Vettel in an improved Red Bull.
Defending champion Lewis Hamilton struggled, starting at the rear with both Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock (Who ended up starting from the pit lane).
At the start (Which started at 5pm local to accommodate the Europeans), Button got a clean jump and led into turn 1 from Vettel and Nico Rosberg, while further back, Barrichello dropped from second to ninth, and was battling Mark Webber’s Red Bull, and after being hit from behind, Barrichello’s left front tyre impacted with the right-hand sidepod of Webber, which half-spun the Australian into the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld, and also took out Heikki Kovalainen’s McLaren.
Another Australian Grand Prix ruined for Mark.
Eventually various things happened- Nakajima crashed out from 4th on lap 18, Nelson Piquet Jnr spun out from 7th due to a brake problem and both Ferraris failed to finish due to mechanical failures.
The incident that ultimately finished off the race was on lap 56, when Vettel in 2nd ran wide at turn 1, allowing Robert Kubica to make a serious challenge into turn 3.
Vettel braked early, Kubica was ahead turning in, but as the German turned his front wing locked onto the sidepod of Kubica’s BMW, and both cars lost their front wings.
Both drivers tried to carry on towards turn 5 at racing speed, but without downforce it was a suicide tactic, and they both hit the wall- Kubica was out on the spot, while Vettel tried carrying on on a points scoring position, but eventually ground to a halt (He would be penalised for the stewards for causing the accident)
With the safety car called out, Button was secured of his 2nd career victory, and the Vettel-Kubica incident promoted Barrichello to 2nd and set up a Brawn 1-2, while Trulli was 3rd and Hamilton 4th (These two had a moment that I will discuss below).
It was the second race in F1 history to finish under the safety car (Canada 1999), while Brawn became the first team since Mercedes (The original Mercedes) at the 1954 French Grand Prix to start on pole in their debut race, win, and finish 1-2.
Remember those classic highlight videos the F1 website used to do? This was the one for this race, including the crummy music!
A week after the race, Hamilton was disqualified for lying to the stewards about an incident with Trulli, for making it appear that the Italian had passed the McLaren driver under the safety car, which led to Trulli getting a penalty (Which was rescinded) and Hamilton finishing in 3rd.
Brawn’s technical advantage would last until mid-season as teams caught up (Namely Red Bull), but it allowed Button to win the Driver’s Championship and Brawn to win the Constructor’s Title, a true Cinderella story if there ever was one.
At season’s end, Brawn were bought out by Mercedes-Benz to become their factory team, and Button left to join McLaren.
And there’s so much more I tried to fit in, including when I went to the memorable 2014 edition and saw Daniel Ricciardo get disqualified from 2nd.