ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 7 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Aspects of Albert Park

  by Mark Glendenning, Australia

In a series of articles, Mark Glendenning looks back at the history of motor racing at the current home of the Australian GP, Albert Park. In part two, we look at the shift from Melbourne to Adelaide

Part II: You Don't Know What You've Got 'til it's Gone

Melbourne residents who bought the evening edition of the Herald Sun newspaper on 17 December 1993 were greeted with a front page headline proclaiming, "It's Our Grand Prix!" Six hundred kilometers to the west, Adelaide's The Advertiser was telling the same story in a single word: "Betrayed". The surprise announcement that the Australian Grand Prix was shifting east had a dramatic effect on the city that had hosted the race since 1985. To fully appreciate why, it is necessary to go back to the beginning.

Plans for the race at Adelaide were first launched in 1982, when a proposal to host a World Championship Grand Prix as part of the state of South Australia's 150th anniversary in 1986 was put before the Mayor of Adelaide, Wendy Chapman, and the chairman of the Jubilee 150 Committee, Kim Bonython. The response was positive, and FOCA were also supportive when approached.

The original idea was for a single, one-off event. FOCA wanted a long-term deal though, an arrangement that would naturally require the direct involvement of the State Government. The government was receptive to the idea, and an agreement was finally reached for three guaranteed races and an option on a further four. However, in order to secure the Jubilee event for 1986, the Adelaide organisation was required to host their first Grand Prix a year earlier. Australia's first World Championship race on November 3rd 1985 was the fiftieth running of the Australian Grand Prix. (The Australian Grand Prix had been run as a non-championship event since 1928).

The organisers of the Grand Prix in Adelaide had always intended the event to be more than a car race. A document released by the Australian Formula One Grand Prix Board (AFOGPB) stated that the event was "an international motorsport event which has been deliberately broadened to embrace a carnival theme, calculated to be attractive to the general public, as well as dedicated motorsport fans." Essentially, the primary aim of the Grand Prix was to put Adelaide and South Australia 'on the map'; both in national and international terms.

This idea is also reflected in the list of objectives with which the AFOGPB was charged with when it was formed in 1984; namely, to promote Adelaide, South Australia, and Australia on an international level; to stimulate the South Australian economy; to create employment through the provision of new opportunities in South Australia; and to encourage tourism and outside interest in local industry development.

The absence of any specific reference to the sporting and competitive elements of the Grand Prix is interesting, though not surprising. Indeed, the actual event is not mentioned in the statement of objectives at all. As is the case with many other such events (the Grand Prix in Melbourne would prove to be another shining example) the desire to host the Grand Prix stems from an interest in what the race can do for those in power, rather than the other way around.

By and large, the Grand Prix was embraced by Adelaide to a degree that must have been far beyond the wildest dreams of those responsible for the race. To understand why the race enjoyed such a reception, it is helpful to look at Adelaide's relationship with other parts of Australia. AFOGPB Executive Director Mal Hemmerling once referred to Adelaide's success in beating "its more prominent Eastern State rivals" to the rights to host the event. Hemmerling's sentiments and phrasing are both highly illuminating in this regard. In global terms, the major cities on the eastern seaboard, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, serve as the windows through which the world peers at Australia. Outside this country, popular conceptions of Australia are largely mediated by information, images, or symbols that are created in or directed through one of these cities.

Ultimately, South Australia's enthusiasm for the Grand Prix was derived from what one economic study called 'a self-image problem' that was apparent whenever the state compared itself with the eastern states, particularly Victoria. In an interview with The Advertiser the day after Adelaide's loss of the race was announced, Hotel and Hospitality Industry Association executive director Mr. Ian Horne was quoted as saying that unless South Australians could find something to replace the Grand Prix, they were "in danger of becoming second-rate citizens and losers to the east coast". A few years earlier, a Price Waterhouse economic evaluation of the Grand Prix commented that there was "evidence that the loss of the Grand Prix would have a significant adverse impact on the self esteem of Adelaide".

Reading through the newspaper reports, economic studies, AFOGPB documents, and other material, one of the most oft-encountered themes is the idea that the Grand Prix put Adelaide 'on the map'. For a brief period each year, the eyes of the world were on Adelaide as it provided the backdrop to the excitement and spectacle of Formula One cars in full flight. It didn't matter that the massive global television audience would only see fleeting glimpses of the city itself, and even the visible parts were at least partly obscured by barriers, grandstands, and other pieces of race infrastructure. The Grand Prix, it was hoped, would help to pull Adelaide away from the 'fringes' and seal the city's place as a legitimate force in Australian economics and popular culture.

The newspapers tended to reflect this, occasionally to the point of getting a little carried away: "The invasion of visitors, many chattering in foreign tongues, lends a cosmopolitan feel to the place. There is a holiday atmosphere in the city. Adelaide relaxes and shows its party face. We step from our usual rather modest place in status to the world stage, touched for a few days by the glamour of the Formula One circuit, our little city beamed around the world to millions. It is heady stuff, a short intermission in our toiling lives. We share briefly the horizons of far, exotic and, for most of us, unattainable places". (The Advertiser, 30 October 1989).

Another report talked about how the race "has helped put Adelaide on the global map, and it has helped shift our parochial perceptions of ourselves into a more worthy pride that we can compete - both as a city and a Grand Prix - with the best of them". (The Advertiser, 30 November 1991). The latter sentiment was one echoed by Hemmerling: "...we are proud of our city and state which demonstrated to the world that we are up there with the best".

Of course, it also helps that Adelaide played host to some amazing racing. Many small milestones were registered - several champions, including Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg, contested their last race here, and it was also in Adelaide that Ayrton Senna scored his last victory. The 1991 Australian Grand Prix, meanwhile, was the shortest World Championship event ever - it was red-flagged after only 14 laps. But one race, though, is now considered to be among the most dramatic in World Championship history. While it was in Adelaide, the Australian Grand Prix was the final round of the championship.

As Formula One descended upon the city in 1986, there were three drivers with a chance of walking away from the race with the Championship. Nigel Mansell led the table with 70 points, followed by Alain Prost with 64 and Nelson Piquet with 63. Needing only to finish third, Mansell entered the race as the overwhelming favourite for the title. The Englishman got his weekend off to a good start by claiming pole, and elected to avoid any early-race mishaps by letting Senna and Piquet by. Keke Rosberg soon caught the leading pair, eventually passing them to give the race its third leader in just a couple of laps.

It was at this time that Prost began his charge from fifth, however he developed a puncture and limped into the pits for a seventeen-second stop. While the other frontrunners concentrated on passing each other and having mishaps (Piquet spun while in second place and rejoined the race in fourth), Mansell motored along happily in third position. Prost, having rejoined with a new tyre, proceeded to spice things up by putting a series of fastest laps.

On Lap 63, still 19 laps from the finish, Rosberg was forced to retire from the lead when his right rear tyre delaminated. On a charge, Prost passed Mansell for second place. A lap later, the course of the championship was changed in a single cruel instant. Mansell, busy overtaking a backmarker, suddenly found himself struggling to control a Williams that had comprehensively blown its left rear tyre to pieces. Trailing a shower of sparks behind him, the distraught Englishman slid his Williams down the escape road. Only two seconds separated the remaining contenders Piquet and Prost, but when the Williams team, who were in the awful position of having to weigh their championship hopes against the risk of another tyre blowout, called Piquet in to have his tyres checked as a precaution, Prost was handed the chequered flag.

In many ways the comparatively small size of Adelaide may have worked in its favour. On one hand, it was large enough to cope with the demands of hosting an event on the scale of the Grand Prix. Yet it was also small enough to be completely consumed by the race for a brief period each year. For that one week in late October or early November, Adelaide was the Grand Prix, and the race provided the impetus for an array of spin-off events and celebrations.

One newspaper commentator, writing on the eve of the final race in South Australia, observed that: "The majority of us who know very little about F1 motor racing could hardly believe the rapturous reaction of the motoring enthusiasts, when it was announced that the great race was coming to Adelaide. But we went along with it and got caught up in it...when the circus eventually rolled into town it hit us like a sledgehammer. This was more than a car race. This was the ultimate International Event." (The Advertiser, 11 November 1995).

Hindley Street, one of the city's main thoroughfares, hosted a huge street party organized by local business owners. Elsewhere, private parties were thrown in keeping with the carnival atmosphere that swept the city each year. As the quotation from The Advertiser suggests, enthusiasm for Formula One itself was not necessary. On the contrary, many of those who embraced the event considered the race itself to be merely incidental to the broader celebration.

Support for the Grand Prix in Adelaide was not universal though - indeed, some residents began voicing their concerns before the city's rights to the race had even been confirmed. The major concerns were derived from fears about the degradation of Adelaide's "quiet atmosphere, pleasant surroundings, and the proximity and accessibility of its suburbs." (The Advertiser, 6 October 1984).

These same voices could be heard later, expressing their pleasure that the race was leaving South Australia, and then again, writing to Melbourne newspapers to warn the residents of Albert Park and Middle Park about what lay ahead. (Resistance to the plans for the Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne culminated with the formation of a community-based protest group called Save Albert Park (SAP). For more information on SAP, see From The Banking to the Barricades, Part 1, which appeared in Atlas F1 early last year).

Unlike Melbourne, those opposed to the Grand Prix in Adelaide did not organize into a single body, remaining instead a chorus of independent, isolated voices. This would explain to a large extent why the opposition to the Grand Prix never became an issue to the same degree as it would in Melbourne. The economic and political climate during which the race was announced, though, is also significant. Adelaide's bid for the Grand Prix came at a time when the economic extravagance of the 1980s was reaching a peak. Still yet to be burnt by the economic recession that would hit a few years later, and tempted with a golden opportunity to take a firm step out of the shadow of the eastern seaboard, it is not difficult to see how the residents of Adelaide were prepared to embrace the Grand Prix irrespective of any minor inconveniences (such as noise and traffic problems) that may arise from the event.

As the Price Waterhouse report predicted, the loss of the Grand Prix did indeed have an adverse effect on Adelaide, at least in the short term. The immediate aftermath of the announcement saw wave after wave of accusations and outrage as various parties connected with the event tried to distance themselves from responsibility for the loss. This was due in no small degree to the manner in which the race was 'stolen'. In early November 1993, a popular weekly Australian motorsport newspaper ran a report indicating Melbourne's intention to bid for the race. Responding to the news, South Australian Tourism Minister Mike Rann said: "The Vics are kidding themselves of they believe they have any chance of taking the Grand Prix away from Adelaide."

In fact the deal had already been sealed in secret some three months earlier, and the announcement just two weeks later left Rann and the AFOGPB in a rather embarrassing position. Part of the value of the Grand Prix had been that it conveyed an impression that Adelaide was capable of operating on equal terms with the larger cities. Now it appeared to have been caught napping, and in the time it took for the Melbourne organization to sign the relevant dotted lines, Adelaide had been firmly pushed back to the shadows.

This was the fundamental theme that carried through the wave of letters that appeared in Adelaide newspapers over the following days, and was also the main point being pushed in an editorial: "For (ex premier) Mr. Arnold to argue, as he attempted to do yesterday, that Labor warned SA of this possibility during the election is crazy. It was lost before then. It was lost while he was premier, lost while he had the chance to keep it. Mr. Arnold, more than anyone else, blew it. Indeed, in the matter of the Grand Prix, Mr. Arnold and Mr. Rann campaigned on a lie, or, if not a lie, then an exceptionally na´ve assumption. They and their advisers must plead guilty to a minimal charge of incompetence. Because of their attitude, SA today resembles a hick with a straw in its mouth compared with the street-smart Victoria". (The Advertiser, 18 December 1993).

Ever gracious in victory, Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun rubbed salt into the wound with another headline the day after the announcement: "GP Deal Took 10 Minutes!"

Previous Parts: INext Week: a look at the Docklands.

Mark Glendenning© 2007
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