ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 8 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 three, we look at the possibility of the race being held at Melbourne's Docklands

Part III: Docklands - Melbourne's Grand Prix That Might Have Been

In November 1993, the State Government of Victoria announced that the Australian Grand Prix was on its way to Melbourne. The race would take place on the sweeping roads that surrounded Albert Park Lake, a site that had previously hosted the event in 1953 and 1956. While Melbourne Major Events Company chairman Ron Walker, the man responsible for sending the race eastward, smiled triumphantly from the front pages of Melbourne papers, the news was causing all kinds of consternation in a lot of different places. Adelaide, for their part, had no idea that their hold on the race was even in jeopardy, never mind that Walker and Bernie Ecclestone had shaken on a deal some months earlier. Indeed, the secret was so well kept that even some key members of the Victorian Government had no idea that they would soon be Grand Prix hosts.

While making major deals under the cover of darkness has the advantage of allowing one to take the opposition by surprise (and Walker certainly got Adelaide Grand Prix chief executive Dr. Mal Hemmering there), it doesn't allow for such courtesies as public consultation. The mostly well-to-do residents of the Albert Park area suddenly found themselves with front-row Grand Prix seats, and they weren't necessarily happy about it. Additionally, there was the issue of public parkland being taken closed off for private enterprise, an argument that had dogged efforts to use the park for racing for decades. Other concerns raised concerned with issues including the environmental impact, the impact upon local businesses, and the effect of the park modifications upon the many sporting clubs that used the area.

It's important to understand the political backdrop against which all of this took place. At the time, Victoria was ruled by the conservative Liberal Party (or, more correctly, a Liberal/National Party coalition) led by Jeff Kennett. Kennett had a highly aggressive style of leadership, and many of his actions leading up to the Grand Prix announcement were fast helping him develop a reputation for autocracy. Public consultation was never a high priority. In the process, he was also creating a community that was becoming increasingly hostile toward surprises such as the Grand Prix. In fact, a protest group was established specifically to lobby against the Grand Prix, and are still active today.

Certain segments of the population began to demand alternative sites to Albert Park. It was a fruitless exercise from the beginning, because Melbourne's right to hold the race was, under the terms of the contract with FOCA, conditional upon the event being staged at Albert Park. Thus, once the deal was signed, the location of the Grand Prix was never open to negotiation. Walker and the government were more than happy with the Albert Park site anyway. Elsewhere though, the search for a new location in Melbourne for a Grand Prix track began.

The owners of the permanent circuit at Sandown, located around 20km from Melbourne's CBD, were desperately keen to host the Grand Prix. However, the distance from the city and a variety of logistical problems meant that they were never really in contention. Instead, the eyes of those opposed to the Albert Park option began to look toward the city's Docklands area. The state opposition Labor Party commissioned a Docklands Task Force to investigate the viability of the area as a site for the Grand Prix.

Docklands covers around 300 hectares of land and water, and is located to the immediate west of Melbourne's Central Business District, little more than 1 km from the city centre. Long past its glory days as a vibrant port area, the Docklands was now a largely abandoned, decrepit, semi-industrial ghost town. The question of what to do with the Docklands site had been thrown around for years, and while all kinds of ideas for hotels and restaurants had been proposed, the area really needed a project that was sufficiently high profile to trigger further interest in redeveloping the area. The Grand Prix, the Task Force suggested, could provide such an impetus. In reality, it took until 2000 for the long-elusive kickstart to finally arrive in the form of a state-of-the-art sports stadium.

The Task Force justified their choice of the Docklands site on several grounds. It was extremely close to the city - indeed, it was about the only potential Grand Prix site that could possibly be closer to the CBD than Albert Park. Consequently, it was very convenient for the tourist and leisure facilities in the city and along the Southbank precinct. It was easily accessible by public transport. The site was also well serviced by roads, and surrounded by a number of disused yards and redundant storage areas that could be commandeered for car parking. Driving to the race is simply not an option at Albert Park. Finally, the Docklands site could be planned in such a way that left the door open for future developments to be incorporated into the area harmoniously, thus sparing the organisers any of the controversy that was dogging Albert Park.

The final report released by the taskforce, released in June 1994, gives the reader a peek at a crystal ball vision of Grand Prix racing, Docklands style:

"With a Grand Prix at Docklands, the 'world's most liveable city' can portray itself to the world with a backdrop of the spectacular Melbourne city skyline in a hot March day with colourful yachts and multi-million dollar cruise ships virtually on the Grand Prix track, further complemented with aerial views in the distance of the green and expansive Dandenong Ranges."

Docklands track, option ASo what would the circuit have looked like? Two options were proposed. Both were between 4.5 and 5 km long, and the taskforce report envisaged an average lap speed of "over 200 kilometers an hour". Maps of each circuit are shown below. I apologize at this point for the poor reproduction quality - these are the best examples available to me. The map is configured so that north is toward the top, and the shaded area represents water.

Option A

The first option was based around the waterfront of Victoria Dock. It included a parallel pair of straights, one following a street, the other laid out along a proposed extension to the wharf at one end of Victoria Dock (which is the large, rectangle-shaped piece of land that you can see jutting into the water halfway along the straight). Both options were designed for clockwise running.

Option B

The second option was faster and more expansive than the first. As well as the roads and wharves of Docklands, this plan also encompassed a large section of the redundant rail yards to the north. While offering a more exciting circuit, this option carried the disadvantage of requiring the heavily used Footscray Road to be closed during the race, as the circuit crosses the road at two points. The Task Force report played down the inconvenience, claiming that closure of the road would only be "miminal, approximately four hours on race days". One can't help but wonder what kind of program of support races they had in mind!

Docklands track, option BAn urge to get a feel for what might have been saw me heading down to the area last week. Unfortunately, tracing out the would-be circuits is impossible. Having now received the kickstart that it needed in the form of the stadium, Docklands circa 2001 is a different place to that of seven years ago. The new stadium now stands squarely on top of the spot that would, under Option B, have been the site of the start-finish straight and pit area. There are construction sites everywhere - there must be more bulldozers and guys in hardhats per square metre here than anywhere else in the country. Some of what would have been the southern parts of the circuits are now building sites, and others in the same proximity are closed to the public. Further construction activity made parts of the dock difficult to access.

The whole process was further complicated by the fact that some of the roads described in the report no longer exist, others have been renamed, and new roads that service the stadium have cropped up everywhere, particularly to the southeast. The areas that are still recognisable looked, frankly, rather uninspiring. In some cases it was difficult to see how grandstands could possibly be squeezed into the allocated area, while a couple of other places didn't seem to have much more than the barest minimum of run-off area. If someone had taken to the gravel, it would have been a short trip.

So how likely was it that the advocates for the Grand Prix at Docklands would get their way? Realistically, it was never going to happen. As stated earlier, Melbourne's contract to hold the race was conditional upon the use of Albert Park, so the site of the race was never subject to change. To do so would, according to then-Australian Grand Prix chief Judith Griggs, have required the entire deal to be renegotiated, and placed Melbourne, and perhaps even Australia's hold on the Grand Prix in jeopardy. Also, the Docklands plan was above anything else the product of the Labor Party's need to both counter the government and win the support of those against the Albert Park site by coming up with an alternative. Thus, it was selected and planned with these objectives in mind.

Nevertheless, while they may never have been genuine contenders for Grand Prix hosting honours, 'alternative options' such the Docklands site do have their own tiny niche in the history of the Australian Grand Prix. None of the drivers, media, and team personnel that will descend upon Albert Park in two short weeks will have any idea that, had some people had their way, they could have been setting up their gear 4 km away against the backdrop of abandoned wharf facilities and rail yards. Even if they did know, they wouldn't particularly care. Still, while the significance of the Docklands plans have faded considerably with time - even many Melbournians have probably forgotten about them - they still play a small part in making up the big picture of the story of Grand Prix racing at Albert Park.

Previous Parts: I  |  II Next Week: The Making of the 2001 Australian GP

Mark Glendenning© 2007
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