The Australian GP – Our Closest Contact To Formula One
This article originally appeared in the January issue of M2 Magazine. Subscribe now!
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Formula 1 is motorcar racing at its highest level. While Grand Prix motor racing had existed since the 1920s and 1930s, racing was suspended over World War 2. The ‘formula’ agreed upon during 1946 was first raced in 1950, and only gradually changed over the next 67 years. While Europe is the main stage of the Formula 1 calendar, one of the oldest stages in Grand Prix is the Australian GP. It first ran in Phillip Island in 1928, and since 1985 it has been a round of the FIA Formula 1 world championship. In total, the event has run 79 times. Its first Formula 1 World Championship race was at the Adelaide Street Circuit in 1985, and in 1996 it moved to Melbourne where it has stayed. Since the move, the Australian GP has been the first race of the year, except for the 2006 and 2010 seasons. Given its rich history as a Grand Prix location, the closeness of the race to us in New Zealand and because it’s coming up very soon, we decided to take a stroll down History Avenue and look at why the Australian Grand Prix is so special.
Generally accepted knowledge says the Australian Grand Prix started life as the ‘100 Miles Road Race’ at the Phillip Island road circuit in 1928, although an event called the ‘Australian Grand Prix’ was believed to have been held near Sydney in 1927. The inaugural race was won by Arthur Waite in a modified Austin 7, kicking off eight years of racing on the rectangular dirt road circuit. It was over these years that the Australian ‘special’ mechanical marvels were created – machines that would almost be at home in Mad Max and are easily as capable as the ‘proper’ Grand Prix racers from Europe.
Despite the ingenuity of the locals, Bugatti swept the results, taking wins every year from 1929 to 1932. The last race at Phillip Island was in 1935. There was an event in a similar style held at the South Australian town of Victor Habour on Boxing Day, 1936, before the Australian GP title was revived for the grand opening of the Mount Panorama race track in 1938. This racetrack would go on to become of the world’s most famous racetrack, hosting events all year round – one of which is the Bathurst 1000. Only one more race was held, at the Lobethal Circuit in South Australia, before World War 2 engulfed the country.
In the aftermath of World War 2, parts, fuel and tyres were scarce and what was left over from the conflict was rationed. Mount Panorama resumed duties in 1947, beginning a rotation between the Australian states. A mix of stripped-out production sports cars and Australian ‘specials’ took victories as the race moved from converted airfield to street circuits and back to Mount Panorama in 1952. That race was won by an imported Talbot-Lago Formula 1 car, driven by Doug Whiteford, and was a big indication of what was to come. The end of the Australian ‘specials’ era was coming, although it was stretched somewhat by a series of Maybach-based specials driven by Stan Jones.
For four years starting in 1952, Australia tasted what the Europeans had been experiencing for years with the Albert Park Lake races in Melbourne. In 1956, Englishman Stirling Moss and the factory Maserati racing team brought a fleet of 250F Grand Prix racers and 300S sports racing cars to the Melbourne Grand Prix. Stirling won the race from Maserati team mate Jean Berha in a race that would usher in the next great era of the Grand Prix.
The Tasman Series’ formula ended up being directly responsible for Formula 1’s return to glory.
The growing number of engineer-drivers – including New Zealander Bruce McLaren, who would go on to found the McLaren car company of today – began to transform the race in the 1950s. Jack Brabham began to test developments for Cooper during the European winter months, which brought an influx of Cooper-Climax Grand Prix machinery. As Brabham built his own cars and the Lotus chassis made it on shore, the Australian ‘specials’ were finally put to rest. The 2.5L regulation was a huge draw for the European teams, as the European Formula 1 was limited to 1.5L engines. It was the BRM Grand Prix’s summer tour of 1962 that cemented the need for a new series. The Tasman Series was born.
From 1963 until 1969, the best European Formula 1 teams and drivers took the European winter to come Down Under and race in both Australia and New Zealand. It was a golden age of racing in Oceania, with each country’s Grand Prix becoming a highlight of the summer. The Tasman Series’ formula ended up being directly responsible for Formula 1’s return to glory. Jack Brabham was able to unexpectedly sweep Formula 1 using his knowledge and experience in developing the Brabham cars during the Tasman years. Ferrari and the British cars were heavy, fragile or underpowered – often combinations of all three – until the Lotus-Cosworth came about in 1967.