Well folks, this is the end of the series, which began at the end of last year – 100 days ag0, apparently. Soon I will be off on my way to Australia to start the new Formula 1 season. I hope that the series has helped to fill the winter months. I have been asked to compile these vignettes into a book – and I will be doing so shortly… But, how does one finish such a run? Looking forwards and back at the same time. The answer, I concluded, was to be found in Australia, the next step in F1 history, where the on March 26 the 957th World Championship Grandes Épreuves will take place…
I guess with 20 races this year and with, let’s say, 22 next year Liberty Media can start planning for some real hoopla at the first race of 2019, as this will be the 1000th World Championship event. God willing, it will be my 543rd. And perhaps when we head to Australia in two years from now, I will be finishing off Fascinating F1 Facts, Volume III…
In the meantime, let us look backwards to the start of the story because the Australian GP is one of the oldest races to carry the title Grand Prix, although for much of its history it never had a proper home: it was the Walkabout Grand Prix, forever on the move, forever changing.
Italy has had a Grand Prix since 1921, Germany since 1926 and Australia since 1928, a year before the first Monaco GP.
Racing on the roads in Australia was forbidden, just as it was in Great Britain, but the Australians were a little less rigid and when the people of Phillip Island voted to create their own shire in 1927, it opened the way for racing on the island. The Victorian Motor Cycle Union and the Light Car Club of Victoria of Victoria proposed a race and the President of the shire’s new council, Albert Sambell, a local land owner and entrepreneur, saw the benefit of the idea and the council voted to ignore the law and hold a race in March 1928. It was basically a club race on a 6.5-mile road circuit on dirt and gravel. In those days there was no bridge to the island so one had to go by ferry, but despite this 10,000 spectators arrived for the first event, a complicated handicap affair. It was won by Captain Arthur Waite, who had been wounded at Gallipoli and hospitalised. He soon met a young woman called Irene Austin and they were married and the gallant officer then began racing his father-in-law Herbert Austin’s automobiles at Brooklands. He would later take his wife to Australia, where they established the first Austin dealership. The race was won in an Austin Seven.
The event stayed on Phillip Island until 1935, but remained a club event, won by local heroes with imported Bugattis, Rileys and MGs. There were some serious accidents and gradually pressure grew for change, although Phillip Island would later build a permanent circuit. The Australian GP, however, moved on, first to Victor Harbor, a seaside resort 30 miles south of Adelaide in South Australia and then on to a series of other road circuits, including an unsealed “Scenic Drive” at Mount Panorama in Bathurst (NSW) in 1938.
The race stopped during the war but was revived at Bathurst in 1947, the road having by then been surfaced and then it moved on to airfield circuits at Point Cook (Vic) and Leyburn (Qld) and road courses at Nuriootpa (SA) and Narrogin (WA). After another visit to Bathurst, the event moved to Albert Park in Melbourne in 1953 and 1956 and the first international drivers were invited to take part. The pattern of road and airfield courses continued with visits to Southport (Qld), Port Wakefield (SA) and Caversham (WA) before a return to Bathurst in 1958. The Tasmanians were keen to get involved as well and a fearsome road course was devised at Longford, but then it was on again to Lowood (Qld) and Mallala (SA). Lex Davison was the big winner in this era with four AGP victories.
By the 1960s, an increasing number of proper racing circuits emerged, including Warwick Farm, Sandown Park and Lakeside. The first AGP at ‘The Farm’ was in 1963 and was won by World Champion Jack Brabham and the race then became part of the Tasman Series, with visiting F1 stars taking on the locals during the European winter. The winners included Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and Chris Amon.
The F1 schedule was growing, however, and so the numbers of visitors reduced and Tasman turned to Formula 5000, with the likes of Frank Matich and Graham McRae being multiple winners of the event, but in the 1970s the growth of touring car racing pushed the single-seaters into the background. The Australian Drivers’ Championship was run to Australian Formula 2 rules and the race was held at new circuits such as Oran Park (NSW) and Wanneroo (WA). Bob Jane, a celebrated racer and entrepreneur wanted to get in on the act with his Calder track near Melbourne and tried to host an F1 race in 1980. Alan Jones appeared in a Williams FW07 and an old Alfa was sent for Bruno Giacomelli while Didier Pironi was persuaded to take part in a locally-built Elfin. It was not a great success but Jane then opted for Formula Pacific rules in 1981 and paid F1 drivers to compete. These included Nelson Piquet, Jacques Lafitte and Alain Prost. They took on the best locals but the big winner in the era was Brazil’s Roberto Moreno, who won three Australian GP victories. But by then plans were being laid for a World Championship F1 race in Adelaide – and the modern story of the Australian GP began on the streets of Adelaide in 1985. The race stayed for 11 years before moving to Albert Park 21 years ago.