The grand prix has become a much-loved Melbourne event

When the Australian Grand Prix first landed in Melbourne in 1996, it was met with large protests over its cost, the use of a public space and the noise impact on nearby residents. Few would have imagined that 27 years later, the race’s future in Melbourne appears more secure than ever (it’s now locked in until 2037) and extra grandstands have had to be built this year to cater for the expected record-breaking crowds.

This year also marks the first time in the modern Formula 1 era that a born-and-bred Melburnian will compete in the race. Oscar Piastri, who drives for McLaren, started his motor sport journey racing go-karts in Oakleigh and was educated at Brighton’s Haileybury College. While Piastri may have some home-town advantages, this being his third race at F1 level, he is not expected to trouble the podium.

Max Verstappen showed off his speed in Saturday’s final practice session.Credit:Getty Images

That is unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd. It has not been a happy hunting ground for previous Australian drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Mark Webber. While both won their share of grands prix, neither could do better than fourth in Melbourne when the checkered flag came down.

Formula 1 in Melbourne has always been much more than just the race. From the moment former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett trumpeted that he had stitched up a $60 million deal to steal the race from Adelaide, the event has been a lightning rod for debate.

All the high-octane revelry and trackside glamour did not seem, at first, a natural fit for Melbourne. Kennett had other ideas. In 1997, the year after F1 cars first raced around Albert Park, Crown casino opened its enormous new development at Southbank. All of a sudden, Melbourne had more than its share of glitz.

The city’s inherent character has proven resilient and accommodating to such showy arrivals. Combined with the Australian Open, the AFL grand final, the Boxing Day Test and the Melbourne Cup, the grand prix only adds weight to Melbourne’s standing as one of the world’s great sporting capitals.

That’s not to say the event is still not without some critics. At a time when the state’s coffers are bursting in red ink, the Victorian government handed more than $78 million last year to race organisers, making it the biggest financial contributor to the event. When you consider Formula 1’s owner, Liberty Media, boosted its revenue by more than $400 million last year to $2.57 billion on the back of the spike in popularity driven by the Netflix series Drive to Survive, it is becoming increasingly difficult to accept that taxpayers must bankroll the event to such an extent.

And while Melbourne has the lock on hosting the race another 14 times, there are changes afoot. Australian Grand Prix chief executive Andrew Westacott will step down this year after heading up the event since 2011. AFL executive Travis Auld is being touted as a possible contender for the role, but whoever fills the shoes will have their hands full. There is ongoing talk of a possible night grand prix and Melbourne has its work cut out to regain the much sought-after first-round slot in the race calendar after Saudi Arabia got the nod when the race was twice cancelled during the pandemic.

For all the wrangling though, hundreds of thousands of Victorians and visitors to the state have spoken with their feet over the past few days. It has become a much-loved event. Let the race begin.

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