This year’s Australian Grand Prix will mark the twentieth running of the race at Albert Park, and twenty years since the final ever Grand Prix on the fabled streets of Adelaide.
Adelaide’s last and Melbourne’s first Grands Prix occurred just a few months apart – the change of venue also saw the event moved from a curtain-closer to season-opener – and both were won by the sport’s only second-generation World Champion: Damon Hill.
We sat down and spoke exclusively with the 1996 World Champion about his memories of his two wins ‘Down Under’ and his thoughts on how Formula 1 has evolved – for better and worse – since he hung up the keys at the end of 1999.
You will forever remain in history as the only driver to claim Australian Grand Prix victories at both Adelaide and Melbourne. How do you look back at these achievements 20 years on?
They were back-to-back races as well, so it’s a rather odd thing to have won two Grands Prix in the same country in successive races.
For 1996, we were kicking off a new season. Melbourne was a journey into the unknown for everyone, but Australia itself wasn’t an unknown prospect. Perhaps the biggest surprise was to find such a large city so far in the southern hemisphere, in contrast to Adelaide, which had been quite a nice, cozy place to be. I remember that there was quite a kerfuffle about people [the ‘Save Albert Park’ group) who were upset that we’d cut down some trees in Albert Park to make way for the race track. So we were a it anxious about turning up and making a good impression.
The Australian race fans have always been incredibly positive, and in Melbourne this was no different. It was a great place to kick off the World Championship and it remains the case.
Your two wins in Adelaide and Melbourne remain an example in contrast: at the final ever race in Adelaide you won by more than two laps, but in the first race in Melbourne you and teammate Jacques Villeneuve battled all the way to the finish. How do you rank these victories among the other 20 of your career?
You’re quite right. The 1995 win in Adelaide was very unexpected, really, because I’d had such an awful year and had no expectations to do well when we arrived in Australia. Most of the runners in the race managed to demolish themselves, including my teammate David Coulthard, who drove into the pit wall! The win rather landed on my lap, I have to say, but it was still very welcome.
The Melbourne race was a precursor to the championship battle for the rest of the season. I pretty much knew that it was going to be between Jacques and I. Jacques was a very feisty character, and being a new boy, very keen to make an early impression, which he did. I had to let him ‘have his head’ and think of the championship. It was a good race between us, but ultimately I think I had him covered, but if he didn’t have his mechanical problem [Villeneuve had to slow with an oil leak] then getting past him might have been a little bit tricky.
Being a semi-permanent street circuit, Albert Park is something of an ‘odd man out’ on today’s calendar dominated by purposebuilt circuits designed by Hermann Tilke. It’s a layout that punishes mistakes but also encourages great racing and overtaking. Did you have any favourite features of the Albert Park circuit, and how did it compare alongside the other circuits you’ve competed at in Formula 1?
I think it was a very likeable track. You always like going to a place where people will turn up in huge numbers to watch you race, and so it always had a good vibe to it. The track itself is technically difficult enough, and there are one or two tricky parts of the circuit. The first turn is always exciting for spectators immediately after the start of the race and it continues to present an opportunity to have a go at overtaking in the race.
My favourite section was the very fast left-right sequence at the end of the back straight, which was really, really challenging. You had to get that absolutely spot on to gain a lot of time through there.
It’s got very little in the way of undulation, so it’s flat layout and street circuit feel makes it very much like the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Canada as a circuit and as an entire event.
Melbourne is celebrating its twentieth running of a World Championship level Grand Prix this year, and as the event’s first winner, you’ve featured very heavily in TV commercials here to promote the event. The celebrations are coming at a time when longevity on the calendar is becoming rarer than when you were racing twenty years ago at the circuit and it was brand new. In your opinion, is Formula 1 doing enough to balance respecting the heritage and tradition of the older circuits on the calendar while it also expands its reach into new markets in the Americas, the Middle and Far East? We’re just over a week away from the start of the season and there are very real fears that the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring could be dropped entirely.
Twenty years is a long time ago, and the concept of new venues was relatively new for Formula 1 itself. Melbourne was itself the new kid on the block in 1996, but what’s kept it on the calendar is its popularity and the great promotion of the event itself. It has shown itself to be a valued asset to the whole Championship.
Go back further, and you have the likes of Silverstone, Monaco, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps, which are circuits that have a cache in the same way that the Masters events would have in golf. These are events which happen every year and have done for a very long time. Where can you go now where the likes of Fangio and Ascari raced? There are very few tracks left with that connection to the start of Formula 1, and the sport needs to respect that heritage and put something back into those venues. New venues are keen to have a Formula 1 Grand Prix and can bank on their government underwriting the cost irrespective of how much ticket revenue the race itself might achieve.
Some of the classic venues don’t have that luxury of bottomless pockets from their governments, and in the case of the British Grand Prix, it remains an event which is funded entirely without any government support.
Formula 1’s attitude is that no one should be there if you can’t cut it, and that’s a principle that works and has been applied in many part of the world. But there’s also a question when you look at the whole business of whether the sport is doing enough to reinvest in its own show to ensure it keeps adding value for the fans who are paying good money to come and watch. It’s the same as putting on a Rolling Stones concert; they don’t just rock up and everything’s ready; there’s a lot of injection and investment behind the scenes to keep the show great.
While we’re on that theme, we’re entering the 2015 season with – at best – a 20-car grid. Last year, a number of teams were very vocal in their concerns about the ever-increasing costs needed to remain competitive, and we’ve recently seen both Caterham and Marussia placed under administration, while the likes of Sauber and Force India are known to be under serious pressure. What are your thoughts on the concerns of cost-containment and the survival of the smaller teams?
You’re always going to have those that have, and those that haven’t. You have to turn up with a show, and the show needs to include a sufficient enough number of cars to make it enough of a show. There has to be some breadth and depth.
If Formula 1 is just going to be a cozy club of teams that can afford the massive budgets, then I am very concerned that it won’t be sustainable, nor enough of an attraction for a broader fan base. That’s because not everyone identifies with the winner; there are fans who like to support the underdog and see which of the smaller teams might come up through the field.
Take the Premier League in football: when one of those smaller teams get it right, they can work their way to the top of the tree. When that happens, it’s a bonus for everyone, and the sport wins too.
Pre-season testing has revealed plenty and yet very little at the same time, although the consensus is that the reigning champions Mercedes still look like the team to beat. Can Lewis Hamilton take a third World Championship title?
I think he’s definitely on target for that. If you take the timesheets results as gospel, then it looks like the competition might be struggling to match the Silver Arrows already. The F1W06 seems to have a comfortable enough foundation, which is similar to the situation we saw last year.
Will we see the dominance like we saw in 2014? I think Ferrari and one or two of the other teams are quite a bit closer to Mercedes.
Looking within the Mercedes line-up, if you think that it’s going to be easier for Nico Rosberg to beat Lewis now, I really don’t think that is possible. Nico is going to have to have invented something different in his driving over the winter to beat Lewis. I’d say Lewis is a favourite for the title at the moment.
Daniel Ricciardo proved to be the only driver who could topple Mercedes last year with three outstanding wins. How did you rate his performance, particularly how he beat teammate Sebastian Vettel?
In a word: amazing. He drove pretty faultlessly all through the year and surprised everyone. He’s a massive gift to Formula 1 because he’s clearly enjoying everything and radiates a (typically Australian) sunny visage as he does his stuff. There’s always a big smile on his face, and he’s happy to be there and be alive. That’s how he drives as well; he’s a great joy to watch.
Images via XPB Images and Matome