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A weekend with the petrol-heads

With the Formula One circus in town, Eric George took advantage of his generous parents to spend the weekend at Albert Park, seeing whether it would change his mind about motorsports.

I’ve never understood the attraction of motorsports.

I won’t entertain the “driving a car isn’t a real sport” argument, but I simply haven’t been able to understand what the draw is for so many Australians as they made their yearly pilgrimage to Albert Park.

Then I was presented with an opportunity to find out: a weekend pass to watch the Grand Prix in a quality seat, courtesy of some overly generous parents.

So I set off in search of answers. Who goes to a Formula One race? How can people be so attached to an international car manufacturer, especially in the era of multi-national, complex automobile conglomerates?

Most importantly: what’s it like to sit around and watch cars for two days straight?

The most striking impression of the live F1 experience is how presents an antithesis to Melbourne’s full time sporting obsession, AFL. Australian Rules is a game designed to be seen in person, as it’s the only way to appreciate the large-scale ball movement that define the sport. Television viewing grants the viewer a real insight into the granular level of the sport, but never captures the game in its entirety.

By comparison, the TV viewer is granted extraordinary scope across the race course in a Grand Prix broadcast, as commentators deftly guide the audience through an at-times chaotic race. Sitting at one corner for two days develops a deep familiarity for the dynamics of a small strip of tarmac, but it’s ultimately a diminished—and at times disorienting—experience of the sport.

Wandering throughout the sprawling event layout between races, I was left with the distinct impression of segregation. Whilst all sporting arenas are split into different ticket zones, the outcome tends to be more subtle than what is achieved at Albert Park.

The main straight is divided into an array of stands, bars, boxes and “premium zones”, each demanding a different ticket or wristband. These reminders that someone’s having a better time than you are normally tucked away out of view from the plebeian fan. Not here, where they are instead wrapped in red signage, and provided with a red carpet and dutiful security guards.

I’ve never before been left with such a distinct impression of haves and have nots at a sporting event. Even my regular trips to the gourmet gozleme stand were interrupted by golf buggies whisking beautiful people away to pit lane.

Throughout the weekend, it was difficult to shake the feeling that I was missing out on the real party as I gazed into the many visible corporate suites spread around the straight.

It’s doubly impressive, that despite this feeling of missing out, I found the racing to be entirely captivating.

Due to the cataclysmic weather that postponed much of the drawcard races, it wasn’t until Sunday that I finally began to grasp what drew such dedicated fans to the event.

The British family to my left had planned a holiday around an opportunity to see Lewis and Jensen overseas. The couple from Perth to my right felt compelled to wave at Felipe Massa every single time he flew past us.

Grand Prix racing simply does not permit complacency in its presence. Like the fighter jet that flew over Albert Park each afternoon, Formula One cars provide a base-level spectacle that cannot be ignored.

A thrilling set of qualification sessions left me reeling early on Sunday, despite the heavy scepticism I carried into the grandstand that morning. But the race itself at the end of the day swept all before it.

The first lap, with its bunched pack, proved relentless. 22 cars ripped through the corners by my seat in quick succession. Not knowing where to look, I missed most of the action, simply overwhelmed by the sensory overload.

As the drivers spaced out across the track, the race settled into a steady rhythm. After an early period of gripping attacks between a handful of drivers up the front, tire-wear began to take hold, and the deeper tactics of the F1 came to the fore.

This was also the point when I lost track of who was leading the race. As cars leap-frogged each other through different pitting strategies, I became hopelessly disoriented. For a third of the race I was reduced to simply watching the cars fly by, with no inkling of what it meant.

Piecing together the leader board was no easy task without race commentary or timing updates, but the true standings became apparent once the drivers stopped pitting.

Unfortunately, by this point the excitement of the race was behind us. Alonso made a gallant play for first, but it was clear (even to me by this point) that Raikkonen had won the race with five laps remaining.

Cue polite golf applause—the most incongruous, but consistent reaction from the rev-head crowd—as the drivers took their victory lap.

Departing the circuit on Sunday night, I watched as race officials began allowing fans onto the track. Kimmi had only completed his victory minutes before, and now the public began to swarm onto the tarmac—an old fashioned pitch invasion.

The road that had been fetishized for the past four days was being returned to the public, a gesture that certainly cast doubt over many of my earlier concerns about the race. But does it really mean anything when the public’s best chance at interacting with a sport comes after its completion?

Did I over-estimate the separation between fan and action at Albert Park? Did I miss the point? Another bag of questions for me to answer, demanding a return trip next year.


Eric GeorgeTHUMBEric George is a postgraduate journalism student at La Trobe University, you can follow him at @ericpaulgeorge

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