When Melbourne first welcomed the Formula One World Championship in 1996, the catch-cry for the event was "What a great place for the race!" Sixteen years on, it's still a great place for the race – and the reigning World Champion himself agrees.
Sebastian Vettel was a boy of eight when the race was first run here, so he came late to the attractions of Albert Park. But it didn't take him long to figure out how good the circuit and the city are.
“It would be a shame if we were to lose the race in Melbourne,” the now 23-year-old German said in response to recent renewed controversy in Melbourne over the race. “It's one of the nicest cities we go to. It is a different kind of track, a semi-street circuit and race track.”
This is one of the key advantages Melbourne enjoys: a point of difference. Vettel's arrival in F1 coincided with the 21st-century proliferation of new tracks on the calendar, big, purpose-built and perhaps lacking the charm of Melbourne's lakeside facility.
“I think all the drivers enjoy it,” added Vettel. “I know I do, I like it every time I go there and the fans are great. You can feel the atmosphere is different, the whole city is living Formula One. We do not have that in many venues in the calendar and it would be a shame if we missed this one.”
Vettel was sidelined by brake failure here last year and has yet to score his first victory at Albert Park. Not so Fernando Alonso: the double World Champion won for Renault here in 2006 and now plans to repeat that achievement in a Ferrari, the team he joined last season.
“The Melbourne weekend is one of my favourites, especially as there is such a great atmosphere in the paddock and in the whole city throughout the event,” says Alonso, a veteran of over 150 Grand Prix starts. “There is a real buzz about the place and everyone seems to get involved in what's going on. The track sees a lot of action and it's nice to see the packed grandstands: the crowd is enthusiastic and knowledgeable with a real interest in motor sport.”
Another point of difference for Melbourne: an action-packed on-track schedule, unlike so many circuits which have Formula One and perhaps one supporting category, matched by entertainment in the circuit precinct from the start of the event to long after the F1 flag has fallen.
“I hope we can put on a good show for them,” says Alonso, “and also bring home a result that pleases our fans. In my time in Formula 1, I have stood on the Albert Park podium four times and my best memory definitely goes back to 2006 when I won the Grand Prix.”
A German, a Spaniard – and an experienced Brazilian have all come to Melbourne's defence in recent weeks. Alonso's Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa is another driver without a Melbourne win in his distinguished portfolio, but that doesn't alter his affection for the place.
“Even though I've never had much luck in the Australian Grand Prix, I like driving the Albert Park track. The race always produces plenty of incidents and the safety-car usually makes an appearance: we will have to be on our guard, ready to tackle whatever might happen.”
As recent years have underlined, that's another Albert Park advantage: the racing is often far from processional, as last year's hectic 58 laps proved. No chance for the drivers to get bored here... And on top of that, it's a place with a soul of its own.
“There's always a nice feeling in the paddock,” Massa insists, “especially if you happen to be driving for Ferrari: the team has great support from the Australian fans, especially among the large Italian community that live in this beautiful city. Melbourne is probably one of the nicest stops on the entire race calendar, for us drivers and also for Formula One fans.”
We've heard points of view from Germany, Spain and Brazil – but what about the Aussies? In recent years, especially since his race-winning F1 breakthrough in 2009, Mark Webber has been the focal point for local fans at his home race, even though it has never been kind to him – that marvellous fifth place on debut in 2002 apart.
But Mark, like his colleagues, travels the world enough to have a clear perspective on racing in his home country. “Albert Park holds a phenomenal event each year,” says the man who won four Grands Prix last year, including the most prestigious event of all in Monaco. “I, along with other competitors, the media and team personnel, have enjoyed coming to the Australian GP over the last 30 years – we should be proud to have this event in Australia, on a world stage.”
Another crucial point: how many events put Melbourne at the centre of the world's attention? Each year there are two: our tennis Grand Slam, the Australian Open, and the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix. Living in this great city, perhaps it's easy to see things through the small end of the telescope instead of taking a broader international view.
Christian Horner may not be Australian, but he's the Red Bull Racing team boss with Mark Webber in one of his cockpits. English through and through, Horner is a fan of the event Down Under. “Australia has always been a popular grand prix for teams,” he says. “It would be a great shame to lose the Australian race when you consider its popularity, especially with an Australian driver in our car. Formula One is a World Championship and it would be a shame to see the Australian race slip from the calendar.”
See? It's still a great place for the race... and being first will only underline that fact.