Record crowds and local heroes drive Formula One to new heights in Australia | Kieran Pender

Australia’s passion for Formula One is booming, with record attendances at Albert Park defying rising costs and a lack of success on the track

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.


Kieran Pender at Albert Park

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Formula One 2022: a team-by-team guide to the cars and drivers
Battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton will dominate once more but there are plenty of sub-plots to follow

Giles Richards

17, Mar, 2022 @11:45 AM

Article image
Formula One 2023: a team-by-team guide to the cars and drivers
Can Ferrari, with new principal Frédéric Vasseur installed, challenge the supremacy of Red Bull and Max Verstappen?

Giles Richards

01, Mar, 2023 @4:30 PM

Article image
F1 2017: team-by-team guide to the cars and drivers for the season | Giles Richards
Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes are still the team to beat with Valtteri Bottas given tough job of replacing world champion Nico Rosberg but testing showed Ferrari and Williams could be contenders

Giles Richards

24, Mar, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
F1 2021: team-by-team guide to the cars and drivers | Giles Richards
Lewis Hamilton is aiming for an eighth title but faces a tough challenge from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez

Giles Richards

25, Mar, 2021 @11:48 AM

Article image
Mercedes rue missed Melbourne chance but Red Bull and McLaren have hope | Giles Richards
The performances of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen at Melbourne showed Red Bull can be a force this season while Fernando Alonso gave McLaren reason to be cheerful

Giles Richards in Melbourne

26, Mar, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘There’s a curiosity about what’s behind the curtain’: the rise and rise of TV sports reality shows
From surfing and tennis to Formula One and football, TV hopes to lure a younger audience with behind-the-scenes series

Andrew Anthony

04, Feb, 2023 @5:00 PM

Article image
F1 2020: team-by-team guide to the cars and drivers | Giles Richards
Lewis Hamilton has repeatedly had an edge over the field with Mercedes and this time he can match Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles

Giles Richards

02, Jul, 2020 @7:04 AM

Article image
Max Verstappen denies Lando Norris to claim F1 Dutch Grand Prix pole
Max Verstappen secured pole position at the Dutch Grand Prix as he seeks a record-equalling ninth consecutive race win

Giles Richards at Zandvoort

26, Aug, 2023 @2:58 PM

Article image
Lewis Hamilton warns Red Bull’s F1 flop in Singapore was merely a blip
Lewis Hamilton said he does not expect a repeat of Sunday’s Singapore F1 GP, in which Red Bull were beaten for the first time this season

Giles Richards

18, Sep, 2023 @7:44 AM

Article image
Lewis Hamilton takes shock pole position for Hungarian F1 Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton took pole for the Hungarian Grand Prix, with an extraordinary lap at the Hungaroring for Mercedes

Giles Richards at the Hungaroring

22, Jul, 2023 @3:24 PM