Last night I was invited to go to the Grand Prix Ball. It was a spectacular evening and one of the best that I’ve been to – not that I go to many. It is one of those things that is difficult to fit into the timetable of a Grand Prix weekend, particularly if the schedule of practice sessions is skewed because of a race late in the day. In order to get there in time I had to leave the track in a major hurry very soon after practice ended and get through the traffic back to the hotel and then, dressed up like a penguin, I rushed down to the Crown Casino and arrived (amazingly) just four minutes after the appointed hour. I immediately bumped into Paul Stoddart, who is nowadays based in Indianapolis, running a business converting airliners into luxury transportation for people with a ton too much money. We chatted about this and that and discussed the future of USF1, which he said he would be happy to run out of Indianapolis if Chad Hurley felt the need to ask him. The Youtube squillionaire would do a lot worse. Stoddart did a decent job with Minardi and showed himself to be a fearless combattant in F1 politics. Stoddie was running a couple of his old two-seater Minardis around Albert Park. These remain as popular as ever for the lucky folk who get to ride in them.
The ball had a pretty star-studded cast with a decent spattering of F1 faces. I don’t know how they all got there in time but there were several team principals and drivers, along with all the local glitterati. I always find these events rather fun but it is embarrassing as, being a foreigner, one has to ask people why they are famous. Over the years I have had some interesting replies such as: “Oh, I’m the chairman of Qantas”, and “I used to run NewsCorp” and “I’m Australia’s best weather girl”.
The star of the evening was Jenson Button and, as one of the people on the table said: “Not only did he turn up, but he actually sounded like he was enjoying it.” It as a classic example of how to engage with an audience. I am sure that Jenson had plenty of things that he would rather have been doing, but he is a model World Champion and did the necessary with grace and style, which is not something that one can say about a number of his predecessors. The hostess was a Canadian author/model who was trying hard but just did not quite seem to be cut out for the job and was overshadowed by most of her guests, particularly Australian swimming star turned TV presenter Giaan Rooney, the Olympic gold medal winning swimmer, who is now a TV presenter. She was not only gorgeous, but came across as someone you just wanted to like. The celebrated yachtsman John Bertrand, who was representing the GP’s official charity also came across well. The show included a terrific duel between a violin and an electric guitar, complete with fireworks, the state Premier John Brumby, a little Swan Lake with ballerinas, an energetic promo for Fame, the stage show that open soon in Melbourne (lest we forget it is the cultural centre of Australia) and singer Gabrielle Cilmi, celebrated for her “Sweet about me” hit, who will sing the National Anthem on race day.
There were a couple of videos about F1 in 2009 and as Jenson said it brought back some fairly emotional times and reminded us all that F1 really is an astonishing activity and all the recent whingeing about whether the sport is interesting is really a waste of time and energy. If it needs fixing, it will be fixed, but it is a little too early for surgery just yet.