ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 6

  Aspects of Albert Park

  by Mark Glendenning, Australia

In the first of a series of articles, Mark Glendenning looks back at the history of motor racing at the current home of the Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park. In part one, we look at the beginning of motor racing at the track, which despite its early success, saw the track lay dormant for almost 40 years

Part I: You Always Remember Your First Time - Early Racing at Albert Park

In 1934, Bugatti notched up their final major victory at the Belgian Grand Prix; while the state-sponsored Mercedes team were taking their first steps toward changing the face of motor racing. Well-to-do English enthusiasts congregated at Brooklands, sheltered from both the riff raff of the lower classes and the terrifying power of real Grand Prix cars, the likes of which they would not see for another three years. Across the Atlantic, brass bands oompah-ed their way past the packed grandstands that lined the main straight at Indianapolis. And, meanwhile, Australian race organisers were mulling over a problem:

"Although motor racing has been a leading sport and has attracted large crowds in Great Britain, Europe and America since before the war, little progress has been made with it in Australia. The explanation is simple. There are no suitable tracks close to the capital cities. The desire of enthusiasts to witness the sport is clearly evidenced by the large crowds which travel by car, train, and ferry to Phillip Island to witness the few road races held in Australia. The Cowes circuit is ideal in many ways, but its distance from Melbourne prevents the holding of regular race meetings, although it will probably remain the principal circuit in Australia for the bigger events, such as the Australian Grand Prix." (The Argus, 3 July 1934)

History would soon prove now-defunct Melbourne newspaper The Argus wrong on the final point: the circuit at Cowes on Phillip Island, which has been used for every Australian Grand Prix since the race's inception in 1928, would host the event for the last time in 1935. They were correct, though, about the availability of easily accessible racing facilities falling far short of demand.

Moves were made to address this when it was announced that the roads surrounding Albert Park, located just 3 kilometers from central Melbourne, would be used for a 250-mile race to be held as part of the state of Victoria's centennial celebrations in 1935. In addition to the obvious advantages of having the race at a circuit that was so much easier to reach than Phillip Island (around 120 km from Melbourne by road), there were also concerns that the anticipated speed of the cars could be dangerous at Cowes.

The proposal was greeted with instant outrage among local residents, and a heated debate ensued in the newspapers during June 1934. One resident felt that "...the authorities controlling Albert Park should refuse to grant any further privileges, and should preserve public rights, which are already seriously curtailed. The promoters of the motor-car race will incur considerable expense in preparing the track, and the privilege granted them may be regarded as a right, and a the speedway used on other occasions." Another referred to a friend who described the race at Cowes as a "miniature hell on earth." Several other letters throughout the month followed similar themes; the primary concerns being the danger of a 'one-off' event setting a precedent for future racing, and worries about public safety and the noise.

The promoters, the Light Car Club of Australia (LCCA) and the committee of management for Albert Park, responded by conducting secret tests at the park using eight race cars fitted with silencers. The tests were a roaring success - not a single complaint was registered. Measures were announced that would ensure the safety of the public, and the newspapers were filled with assurances that the event would not be the thin end of the wedge for future racing in the park. But the battle was contested at higher levels, too: Mr. Dunstan, Minister for Lands, wrote to the Albert Park committee advising them that the race plans contravened the purposes for which the park had originally been created.

Permission was eventually granted for the race on the strict proviso that it be a one-off event. 'Accelerator', the author of the excerpt from The Argus that was reproduced earlier here, observed that "...the difficulties which have been experienced by the Light Car Club of Australia and The Royal Automobile Club of Victoria in their attempt to obtain the use of the road round the lake in Albert Park as a track on which to hold the Centenary race have clearly demonstrated the need for the establishment of a suitable circuit on other than Government land within easy reach of Melbourne."

Permission was finally granted for the Centenary Race in Albert Park, however continued public pressure eventually saw the race shifted back to Phillip Island. An attempt to run a motorcycle race around Albert Park in 1937 was also unsuccessful.

In light of the controversy that surrounded the proposals of the 1930s, it comes as little surprise that the announcement that Albert Park would host the 1953 Australian Grand Prix was kept secret for as long as possible.

The Grand Prix was organized by the Albert Park Committee and the Army, the intention being that any profits would be divided evenly between the two. (The Army's share of the profits was to go to the Southern Command Auxiliary Fund. Effectively, from their perspective, the Grand Prix was a charity fundraiser. For the Albert Park Committee, the event was a purely commercial exercise - a fact that did little to win the sympathy of those opposed to the race.)

News of the impending event prompted a series of debates in the local council chambers, the principle objections being to the presence of fencing and admission fees in a public space. This time, though, the protests failed. According to a race spokesman, the controversial fence was necessary for two reasons: First, it would protect the park from crowd damage. Second, it would enable the organizers to collect admission fees, which were pegged at 4 Australian dollars for adults and 1 Australian dollar for children. The fence was to be patrolled by soldiers, who were charged with the task of 'advising' people to enter through the gates.

The race was run anti-clockwise on a circuit laid out along earlier configurations of the same roads that are used today. The pit area stood directly on the spot occupied by Turn 3 on the modern circuit, and opened out onto a long, gently snaking straight the ended with an almost 90-degree left hander. A quick burst along a small straight - past the spot where David Coulthard's crash brought an early end to qualifying during the 2000 Grand Prix - led to another sharp left (now Turn 13 - remember, we're going around the circuit in the opposite direction to Michael and Mika).

From there, the drivers negotiated a small kink near the Powerhouse, and then a sweeping blast following the curves of Albert Park Lake (much like today, but without the fiddly bits at Turns 9 & 10 and 11 & 12). Another kink, followed by another small straight, and then back onto the main straight via a very sharp left turn that caught out more than a few drivers in its time. At least they didn't have far to walk back to the pits.

The event was a success, with the race running without any major dramas in front of around 70,000 people - the biggest crowd for a motor race in Australia up to that point. It was here, though, that those opposed to the use of Albert Park as a Grand Prix site scored something of a moral victory. Despite the large crowd, officials only recorded 27,000 heads through the turnstiles. The rest - some 40,000-50,000 people - evaded the admission fee by entering, as one newspaper put it, "in the manner of the small boy at the circus." It seems that the contentious fencing was not to prove much of a barrier after all, and the organizers registered a profit of only 2,011 AUSD after expenses.

Now that Australian race organisers had the urban circuit that they were looking for, they were determined to put it for good use. 100,000 people descended upon the lake to see the 1956 Albert Park Tourist Trophy, a race for Grand Prix cars, and the Moomba Trophy, a sports car race. The event was held in March to coincide with the Moomba festival, a 'just for the hell of it' Melbourne festival that continues to the present day (and still leaves most Melbournians a little mystified about what it is that they're actually supposed to be celebrating). But it was the 1956 Australian Grand Prix that came closest of all the pre-championship Grands Prix to matching the scale and spectacle of the present era.

The race was arranged in conjunction with Melbourne's role as host city to that year's Olympic Games. With few exceptions, previous Australian Grands Prix had featured predominantly Australian drivers, and only the 1953 event had been held so close to a major city. Earlier in the year, several of the top local drivers had taken delivery of some impressive new machinery from Europe, so race goers could look forward to the prospect of enjoying their picnics in the company of an assortment of Ferraris and Maserati 250Fs. The real coup, though, was the announcement that Stirling Moss and Jean Behra would be traveling to Melbourne to compete in the event.

The spectacle of Moss hurling his Maserati 250F around the lake would ensure that the crowd would be treated to something never seen in Australia before. Like the Formula One Grands Prix that would return to the park in the mid-1990s, the 1956 race was one that people would travel vast distances to experience as something more than a mere date on the sporting calendar.

The show was no doubt assisted by the Olympics, which created a festive atmosphere throughout the city, and perhaps made the disruptions brought about by the race a little more bearable for the local residents. Indeed, there is little indication that the 1956 event was met with anything close to the degree of opposition that had greeted the earlier proposals. This is especially interesting in view of the fact that the park had been opened for racing for two consecutive weekends - the Grand Prix on December 2, and the 100 mile Australian Tourist Trophy; a sports car race held a week earlier.

In truth, the 1956 Grand Prix probably needed to be something special, because not only was it running concurrently with the Olympics, but to a certain degree it was also competing with it. No records exist to differentiate between visitors that arrived in Melbourne for the Grand Prix and those that were in the city for the Olympics, and no doubt a lot of Olympic visitors took advantage of the race's timing to attend both events - particularly with the promise of such famous names in the starting field.

At any rate, the race enjoyed substantial coverage in the newspapers, despite the presence of the Olympics. Children entered competitions to win rides around the circuit with Moss, while brass bands entertained the massive crowd, which various estimates placed somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people. As an event, it complemented the party atmosphere of the Olympic Games perfectly.

A year later, 'Australian Motor Sports' magazine ran an editorial echoing the same concerns about the lack of a permanent circuit within easy reach of a major urban centre that had been expressed by 'The Argus' some twenty years earlier. Writing about the future of Albert Park as a race circuit, the editor closed by posing the question: "Is the Park to be a happy Olympic memory, or an annual event of world renown?" In the short term, the editor's wish was granted to some extent, with Albert Park hosting a variety of smaller races to coincide with special occasions such as the Easter holiday or the Moomba festival. A larger race, titled the 'Melbourne Grand Prix' was scheduled for November 1958; the Australian Grand Prix having been run at Bathurst that year.

The complaints that had dogged the 1934 and 1953 proposals resurfaced, this time with the support of the conservative state government under Henry Bolte. Again, the problems were centered on the plans to facilitate the collection of entry fees by surrounding the park with fencing. Residents of the surrounding area expressed concerns about the noise and possible danger to the public. Even the Albert Park Committee of Management seemed to be against the idea, with seven out of eight committee members expressing a personal disapproval of motor racing in the park, but acknowledging that it represented a quick way to make money.

The government reluctantly allowed the race to go ahead, but introduced new regulations that forbade the Albert Park Committee from arranging any future races in the park without obtaining government consent. A joint statement from Premier Bolte and the Minister for Lands, Mr. Turnbull, effectively ended racing in Albert Park for the foreseeable future: "While we remain the Government, the Albert Park Committee of Management will not be given permission to hold this sort of activity."

The wail of racing engines would not be heard at the park again until the first practice session of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix. It's tempting to finish by saying something along the lines of "But that's another story...."; and of course in some ways it is. By the time of the 'second coming', the Australian Grand Prix had been a part of the World Championship for more than a decade, and carried all of the associated baggage - the FIA, zillions of dollars, stupendously large global television audiences. Yet, when one considers other characteristics of the event - the huge crowds, the lakeside setting against the backdrop of the city, the glamour of the world's best race cars and drivers, even the protests that first dogged the idea of racing at the lake seventy years ago - it's hard not to feel that the first weekend in March 2001 is simply the latest chapter of a story that has taken seven decades to write. And there's more to come yet.

Next Week: The Adelaide-Melbourne shift in the 1990s.

Mark Glendenning© 2007
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