Atlas F1

A Lap of Albert Park

Taking a Walk around the Grand Prix trackby Mark Glendenning, Australia

Comparatively few of the millions of F1 fans worldwide are fortunate enough to live close to one of the sixteen tracks upon which the World Championship is fought out. Fewer still live near a circuit which is fully accessible to the public. This is particularly true when the track in question is only two weeks away from being invaded by one hundred thousand spectators, dozens of media personnel from all over the world, gaggles of vendors selling everything from tacos to T-shirts (generally at extortionist prices), an army of track and safety marshals, various commercial, social and political figures, celebrities, and various other hopefuls of all kinds who figure that being seen around the F1 Paddock can't hurt whatever their particular career aspirations may be.

Albert Park this weekBeing a street circuit, Melbourne's Albert Park track offers the rare opportunity for the fan to get a look at a Grand Prix circuit that is in the final stages of preparation for its week in the world's spotlight. I took advantage of the track's accessibility to take a look around the circuit, observing the transformation from regular roadway to FIA-standard Grand Prix circuit, and tried to find some clues as to what we might be able to expect from the first race of the 1999 season.

Albert Park is about 3km from Melbourne's city centre. At approximately 5.26km, it is one of the longest circuits on the Grand Prix calendar. For most of the year, the area around Turn 4 is used as a car park, and it was here that I left my decidedly non-Formula 1 Mazda and set off around the circuit on foot. During the year, the corner itself does not actually exist. Redirecting the road from the narrow (think 'laneway'), speed-hump laden thoroughfare that usually takes visitors to the park's main entrance through the carpark is normally left as late as possible, to minimise inconvenience to visitors. Barely have the F1 cars negotiated this left hander before Turn 5 is upon them. A medium right-hander, this corner passes the park gate, and leads the drivers to a straight section that is almost permanently in shade thanks to the overhanging trees. As well as playing havoc with their vision, the drivers also have be careful of the leaves which frequently fall onto the track. Turn 6, a sharper right hander, is something of a bogey corner - it seems to catch drivers out far more often than one would expect. (I remember Ralf Schumacher having a bit of a 'moment' here last year).

Albert Park this weekFollowing the track, you are now on Lakeside Drive, the road which the Grand Prix circuit follows from Turn 6 through to Turn 13. The drivers accelerate through the Turn 7-8, a wide, flowing right / left sequence which passes Albert Park's Golf Course, before braking heavily for the hard right at Turn 9. The next section of the track is a long, fast, sweeping arc, which is the quickest section of the circuit and a popular overtaking spot. The driver's momentum is dampened a little by the medium left and right through Turns 11 and 12, before continuing the charge past the Powerhouse building, under the overpass, and down to Turn 13.

This corner must have been dancing around in Damon Hill's head as he tried to go to sleep for several nights after last year's race, because it was one that he grew to know intimately on several occasions. It is a 90 degree right hander, with a very deep gravel trap that is difficult for the drivers to escape from once they have planted themselves there, as Damon will no doubt tell you. If the new tyres with the extra groove are going to cause any problems for the drivers, this will be one of the accident black spots.

Turn 14 is another 90 degree right hander, which again seems to cause more trouble to the drivers than you would expect. Coming off a short straight following Turn 13, the approach is not particularly quick, yet it is amazing how often you see cars sailing straight on past the bend and into the sand. Walking along the small stretch between Turns 14 and 15, one of my favourite memories from the 1998 Grand Prix comes back to me: I was walking along near this part of the circuit during the Qualifying session. Attached to the barriers at regular intervals are speakers, which broadcast a commentary of the race.

Albert Park this weekIt was about halfway through qualifying, and the track commentator was chatting away, giving updates on the current best times by some of the leading drivers. Suddenly he cut himself off mid-sentence, exclaiming "if anybody is anywhere near the second half of the circuit, run down to the barriers as quickly as you can, because Jacques Villeneuve is on a hot lap and he is ABSOLUTELY FLYING!". Sure enough, about 5 seconds later, Villeneuve came sailing through Turn 14 almost sideways, catching the Williams neatly before the back stepped out, and charging through to Turn 15. More than any other moment (in a very eventful weekend), that for me summed up Grand Prix racing at its best. The glamour, the celebrities, and all the other associated glitter was forgotten - this was what it was all about. The best drivers in the world, driving the best cars in the world to their absolute limit.

Turning hard left at Turn 15, I walked past the pit lane entrance, where some painters were putting the finishing touches to the Qantas logos on the barriers, before going right at Turn 16 and onto the start/finish straight. At this point, I jumped the barriers and had a look at the pit lane itself. Tucked right down the end, next to the scrutineer garages are the BAR pits, which will be home to Villeneuve and Zonta for a few days. It is a long time since any team located down this end of the pitlane has been under a media spotlight as bright as the one that will shine here during the first weekend in March. I can just imagine the Minardi team members next door, who, unaccustomed to being so close to the centre of so much attention, taking special care to make sure that their shirts are tucked in and their hair is in place just in case they happen to wander into a camera shot.

Albert Park this weekOne of the Minardi pit doors is open. There is very little inside to hint of the flurry of activity, technology, and emotion that will take place here in a few days, save for a rather forlorn looking Tyrrell logo painted on the floor - a poignant reminder that the 1999 Australian Grand Prix will mark the beginning of modern Formula One's first season without one of its oldest names. Further up, past the painted marks in the pitlane indicating where the drivers should stop for their fuel and tyres, I pause at the Benetton garage. It must be a while since they were last this far down the pitlane. On the other hand, their new neighbors, Jordan, will be hoping to build on their momentum from the end of last season and maybe move their garage another space or two up the lane for next year.

Continuing on past Williams, Alex Zanardi's name looks a little odd in the company of names like Williams, Schumacher, and Ferrari - he still makes me think of Indycars. I suppose that will all change after a race or two. On to Ferrari. Melbourne is one track that Schumacher is yet to conquer. To say that he will be looking to change that this year would be a huge understatement, although he can probably still taste the twin insults handed to him here last year, the firstly being blown off by the McLarens, and then having his engine cry 'uncle' during the race.

Albert Park this weekOne of the bonuses that come with winning the championship is that in Melbourne you get semi-detached pit garages! The McLaren pits are separated from those of Ferrari by a corridor that leads to the paddock. Still, it is easy to imagine Schumacher and Co. hanging casually around this part of the pitlane, stealing birdlike glances at the new McLaren whenever the opportunity arises. Speaking of opportunity, it was at this point that I noticed that the podium was in place. Walking through the access corridor, I found the staircase that leads to it. Giving the bottle of soft drink that I had on hand a good shake, I climbed up the stairs, readying myself to do a personal re-enactment of Mika Hakkinen circa 1998.

Unfortunately, the door that lead from the catwalk to the back of the podium itself was bolted shut. Feeling as if I had been black-flagged on the last lap, I started to head back down, but stopped. This is an area that the fans rarely get to see. I sat there for a while, trying (and no doubt failing dismally) to imagine how a driver climbing these steps must feel. Exhilarated? Ecstatic? Too tired to really care?

Making my way back out to the pitlane, I passed a notice board, which was still plastered with last year's official memos to the teams, drivers, and other personnel from the FIA and stewards. As well as the official qualifying and race results, there were a few other interesting tidbits: Albert Park this weeka memo to the Jordan team, informing them that Hill had been found guilty of speeding in the pitlane; a similar one to Minardi, this time with Tuero's name on it; a notice to Prost - Panis was to receive a fine and lose his best two qualifying times for leaving his car in gear at the side of the track. Musing over the fact that over the course of the season this would have been the least of Prost's problems, I headed back out to the main straight.

Turn 1. Like almost all of the first corners on GP tracks worldwide, this is pretty unforgiving - especially at the start of the race, and more particularly when three drivers try to take it at once (a la Villeneuve, Herbet and Irvine, 1997).

Turn 2, a medium sweep to the left, lets the drivers pick up the pace before stepping hard on the brakes for Turn 3. A very sharp right-hander, this corner will be talked about and featured on highlight reels for years to come, for it was here that Martin Brundle managed to reduce his Jordan to its component parts in a hugely spectacular fashion, even by Formula One standards. From here it is a short skip to Turn 4, and back to my car.

Mark Glendenning 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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pictures of Albert Park this week appear courtesy of George Darwent