Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Australia: Melbourne's winning formula

Amid champagne, glamour, girls and celebrity glitz, Winston Aldworth notices there's a car race going on

The Rolex Grid Girls spread the sponsor's bonhomie.
The Rolex Grid Girls spread the sponsor's bonhomie.

Watching cars race isn't meant to be like this. Looking down on a Formula 1 race is like witnessing a session of low-flying spaceship racing.

We're doing it surrounded by celebrities, champagne, some impressive aircraft flypasts and a great deal of noise, not all of it generated by engines. For the novice guest, the circus that surrounds the Australian Grand Prix can seem bigger than the race itself.

With a blessed spot in the Qantas lounge, I'm standing, beer in hand, about two metres directly above the head of Mark Webber, the Australian F1driver beloved of Melbourne and embittered by his fellow Red Bull driver, Germany's Sebastian Vettel. The Qantas lounge is directly above the garage of the car in pole position - that's Vettel's.

The Red Bull drivers, like all their rivals, are lean. When Ferrari-driving Spaniard Fernando Alonso peacocks his way to his car, he looks little enough for a mechanic to pick up and pop in his toolbox.

Like any sport, you need to be a true fan to know just what the hell is going on in Formula 1. The truest of fans will know not only the ins and outs of engine power and aerodynamics, they'll also have honed up on the finer points of resentment and mistrust between Webber and Vettel.

But - more than any other sport - this is one where you can remain ignorant of the nuance and simply get swept along in the ludicrous event. You don't need to talk the torque to have a blast at Melbourne's Grand Prix. In fact, the people who seem to be most enjoying the day look like they couldn't tell a McLaren from a Mazda.

Formula 1, perhaps more than any other sport, recognises the importance of putting on a show; of making the event bigger than the race itself. Not a fan of motor sport? Not a problem. Think of it less as a sport and more as skinny teenagers racing spaceships.

And spaceships they are.

There's a lot going on. Celebrities are racing, historic cars do laps and there's a race for - that most Aussie of all things motoring - the V8s. Jimmy Barnes sings. A motorcycle team perform outrageous aerial feats on a giant Hot Wheels track. A Qantas jet gives us a flypast as does an F18 Hornet from the Aussie air force - inviting us, not for the last time today, to recalibrate our volume benchmarks.

The Rolex Girls - a dozen or so beautiful young women spreading the sponsor's bonhomie - sweep serenely through the crowd. The masses part. At one point they have about 100 men trailing in their fragrant wake.

Celebrities - mostly of the knockabout Australian variety - abound. At one point I am introduced to Leo Sayer (the short, frizzy-haired pop star who was big in the 1970s). I thought he was Richard Simmons, another short, frizzy-haired star who was big in the 1970s. I was just about to commend his (Simmons) performance in those Air New Zealand safety videos, when he (Sayer) got distracted and wandered away.

A celeb-spotter better informed than me was able to stop me from completing my error and embarrassing myself.

Sayer is a huge Formula 1 fan and has followed the circus around the world. When the cars take their place on the Melbourne grid he trots from machine to machine, chatting to racing team staff and to the Rolex Girls who hold the signs marking each grid position. It's just one more surreal sideshow at this mad, brilliant circus.

But there's no doubting the main attraction.

On a pitwalk before the main event we get the chance to check out the cars. The striking thing is their single-minded sense of purpose. No room for shopping bags in the back. It's rare, in this multi-tasking age, to see a piece of technology designed so purely for one thing.

At some point, all Formula 1 visitors will be tempted to "have a listen" without the earplugs in.

The volume of a Formula 1 car is a benchmark sound which you know, from the moment you hear it unprotected, has forever adjusted your personal definition of what the word "loud" means.

You hear it for a bit and you think to yourself, "Jesus, that's loud. Nothing could possibly be louder than that." And then a few moments later, it's louder than it was. So you think, "Aha! Got me! Nothing could be louder than that." And, of course, it gets louder still. And that's when there's just one passing by. The start of the race, with 21 roaring spaceships on the grid resets all the dials.

This visceral wall of noise - so loud it's directionless, coming from everywhere - is what I imagine it would be like to be shrunken and placed inside the engine of a particularly loud lawn mower.

A full-throttle drive by clocks in at around 147dB (a gunshot is a relatively passe 133dB). So, yes, those little foam earplugs they give you? Pop them in.

On our pitlane walk, the steering wheel of Kimi Raikkonen is proffered to us. Look but don't touch. Raikkonen is a Finn whose ruddy face and liking for strong spirits might seem to fit more comfortably behind the wheel of a tractor than in the high-glamour world of F1. (Raikkonen ultimately won the race, followed home by the tiny Ferrari-driving Spaniard Fernando Alonso and the unloved German, Vettel.)

The steering wheel is a fiendishly complicated mechanism. The cars are monsters.

Formula 1 is vastly safer than it once was - the last race fatality was Ayrton Senna who, in 1994, became the 24th driver to die in a grand prix. The 23rd, Roland Ratzenberger, died the day before Senna.

But the menace of these giant cars is still clear. After a grid girl at the 1999 British grand prix cheerily wished Michael Schumacher luck by saying "break a leg", the less-than-cheery German found himself a few hours later hospitalised with his leg in plaster.

Albert Park, with its lake in the middle, is a cracking location in which to watch skinny teenagers racing spaceships. The Melbourne skyline makes for a beautiful backdrop as they blast off down the track.

F1 bosses are on the verge of a new deal that will keep the circus visiting Melbourne beyond 2015. I chatted some Melburnians who would happily see the back of the event. It's loud, blocks off a heap of streets for the best part of a week and costs taxpayers around $50 million. Supporters see it for what it is: A ludicrous, glorious and ultimately wildly fun jewel in the crown of a city that prides itself on big sporting events.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Melbourne.
Details: Melbourne Grand Prix 2014 is on March 14-16.

Winston Aldworth travelled as a guest of Tourism Victoria and Qantas.

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