March Guest Column - Home Heroes at the Australian Grand Prix

Words by Damien Smith. Please note at the time of writing the Grand Prix was due to go ahead.

The new Formula 1 season kicks off this weekend, in defiance of coronavirus fears, as Melbourne’s Albert Park once again plays host to the Australian Grand Prix. The race on Sunday will mark the city’s 25th anniversary as a much-loved Formula 1 venue, following 11 years of racing around the equally popular street circuit in Adelaide.

Races Down Under have been a staple of the season since 1985 – yet the Australian Grand Prix itself has a much longer and richer history that stretches far beyond the Formula 1 World Championship, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2020.

Did you know the first Australian Grand Prix was actually held not in Adelaide, but on a road course in Phillip Island – back in 1928? Arthur Waite was the first winner of a 100-mile race in a modified Austin 7.

The Australian Grand Prix’s colourful history features more than 20 venues and a wide range of racing cars: from blue-blooded grand prix cars versus local ‘specials’ in the 1950s, to the popular Tasman series in the 1960s featuring European heroes such as Jim Clark and Graham Hill, to Formula 5000 in the 1970s.

Australia’s triple world champion, Jack Brabham, might not have had a chance to win his local race for Formula 1 points, but he did still win his home Grand Prix – three times: in 1955, 1963 and 1964. The same is true of Australia’s second champion, Alan Jones. To celebrate his title in 1980, ‘Jonesy’ beat a rag-tag field to win his home race at Calder Park that same year, following in his father’s footsteps: Stan Jones was a winner in a Maserati 250F at the fearsome Longford road circuit in 1959.

But since Australia secured its place on the Formula 1 World Championship schedule in 1985, not one Aussie driver has managed to win on home soil. In truth, none have even come close – even if Mark Webber celebrated a special ‘podium’ finish in 2002. The Queanbeyan had toiled hard to earn his place on the Formula 1 grid with the minnow Minardi team – and against all the odds pulled off a heroic fifth place on his Formula 1 debut. Such was the delirium among the partisan crowd, he was awarded his own personal podium celebration with Aussie team boss Paul Stoddart.

But during his Red Bull career, Webber was always disappointed at his home grand prix despite winning eight times elsewhere around the world. Fourth place in his penultimate Australian Grand Prix in 2012 was the best it got, before he handed the F1 baton on to Daniel Ricciardo, who replaced him at Red Bull in 2014.

But even the ever-smiling Ricciardo has always come up short at home. Like Webber, his best finish at Albert Park is fourth, achieved twice in 2016 and 2018 – although he did qualify and finish second in his first race for Red Bull in 2014, only to lose it when his car was disqualified for a breach of the fuel-flow rate regulations in the first race for the new 1.6-litre turbo hybrid engines. Luck just doesn’t hold for the Aussies when they race at home, it seems.

So what about this Sunday? Can Ricciardo, now racing for Renault, break the home drought that stretches all the way back to that Alan Jones win at Calder in 1980? Well, even Ricciardo himself says a victory this weekend is unlikely. Renault struggled last year in his first year with the team, slipping from fourth to fifth behind McLaren in the constructors’ standings, and in Australia Ricciardo barely got started before losing the front wings of his car after taking to the grass.

The latest betting odds reflect his long-shot status. He’s currently 300-1, according to the latest odds we’ve seen. But an each-way bet perhaps? You just never know at the start of a new season, plus it has been known to rain at the Australian Grand Prix at this time of year – and cloudy conditions are predicted for the weekend. A drop or two often throws up surprise results, and after a difficult season in 2019, Ricciardo will be on the hunt for a big result at home – especially as he is in the last year of his Renault contract…

Whatever the outcome, a season opener in Australia is always a grand occasion. There’s never a better reason for an early-morning alarm call on a Sunday than the race at Albert Park.

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