Australians are in love with Formula One. That was clear from the record-breaking crowd that packed into Albert Park for the latest edition of the Australian Grand Prix. Twelve months since the motor sport returned to Melbourne following a pandemic-induced hiatus, Covid-19 was all but forgotten. With almost half a million spectators packing into the venue over four days, the Netflix Drive to Survive effect was on full display.
Increased ticket prices, inclement weather and the rising cost of living did nothing to deter a historic attendance. A changing demographic was also evident: more women, families and young children (entertained by a play area behind one grandstand) and a heightened emphasis on accessible viewing options for fans with a disability. No longer is the Grand Prix synonymous solely with heavy drinking male rev-heads. Kylie Minogue and Kelly Slater made appearances.
The attraction is mutual. Reigning champion Max Verstappen suggested on Friday that he preferred the Australian leg to be the first race of the season, as it has been traditionally (this year it comes third). Officials are reportedly discussing that possibility, together with the feasibility of running the race at night under lights. Kevin Magnussen and Pierre Gasly both spoke glowingly of their time here surfing (notwithstanding a fear of sharks). Several drivers highlighted Melbourne’s culinary delights.
For the first time, the Australian weekend of racing also included Formula Two and Formula Three racing - international feeder series for the top-tier Formula One (Australia’s Jack Doohan placed eighth in Formula Two on Sunday). The added “content” perhaps went some way towards justifying the increased cost of tickets, which in some cases had gone up more than 30% since last year.
Despite the price hike, the Australian Grand Prix is still among the cheaper events on the 23-leg annual calendar. Given the surging popularity - many grandstands sold out in minutes when tickets were released months ago - it remains to be seen what further price hikes might do for demographics.
While Formula One’s Australian appeal might be soaring off the track, it is a different story on it. Having failed to secure a new seat for 2023, ex-McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo was left to soak up the applause from the sidelines (the West Australian is currently Red Bull’s reserve driver). Team boss Christian Horner laughed that ‘even though he‘s not driving, he’s still probably the most popular driver here’. But so far off-track popularity has not translated into another opportunity on it for the eight-time GP champion.
Ricciardo’s replacement at McLaren, Australian prodigy Oscar Piastri, also buoyed the crowd. Piastri is a Melbourne local and there was plenty of hometown support (he is the first Australian Formula One driver to race in their home city). Piastri struggled with McLaren’s subpar car until penultimate lap pandemonium saw him move up to eighth.
Australia’s adopted son Valtteri Bottas (partner of Australian cyclist Tiffany Cromwell) also failed to fire. Bottas earned a cheer equalled only by Piastri during the pre-race interviews, when he greeted the crowd with a warm “G’day mate.” But the cheers could not propel the Finnish driver past 11th (a flattering result, given the many withdrawals).
And so this was the dissonance on Sunday: a sport booming in Australia in the paddock but, for now at least, not on the track. The nation has long punched above its weight in the sport, from the legendary Sir Jack Brabham’s three championships, Alan Jones’s 1980 title and Mark Webber’s three third-place championship finishes. Can it continue this pedigree?
Part of the problem is cost. Racing is an extremely expensive sport; Piastri has spoke openly about the millions spent by his family and sponsors on bankrolling his career to date. There are few pathways for talented young drivers without money behind them. Formula One offers only 20 racing spots each year - with such a steep-sided pyramid, it is hard for the sport to shake off its elitist tag. (It is not for nothing that there has not been a female Formula One driver for more than four decades, either).
It may be that the increased popularity of Formula One in Australia inspires a new generation of local superstars. Perhaps in a decade, local teenagers inspired by Drive to Survive will be making their debut on the Albert Park tarmac. Piastri is only three races into his top-tier career - he has many years ahead of him. Doohan is another promising talent, while Ricciardo may yet return to the grid.
On Sunday, the absence of an Australian contender did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the record crowd. Two red-flag restarts in the final three laps made Formula One history and provided an entertaining denouement to the 2023 Australian Grand Prix. A ground announcer summed up the chaotic conclusion: ‘Good luck to Drive to Survive with this episode.’ It was an apt remark for a race turbocharged, on and off the track, by a pandemic era hit Netflix series.