If Melbourne is truly the sporting capital of the world, as locals like to brag, then it is only fitting that Formula One at Albert Park marked both the first and now latest phase of the pandemic. Two years ago, the grand prix’s chaotic cancellation hours before the first practice session unmistakably heralded a troubling new era. It was one of the first major international sporting events called off due to the emerging virus.
On Sunday, more than 400,000 spectators tried to put the pandemic behind them. It would be premature to say that the domestic resumption of Formula One on Australian shores marks the end of Covid-19 (the 9,510 cases and one death in Victoria on the day of the race made that much clear) but with thronging crowds and exhilarating racing , it was at least momentarily possible to forget the turmoil of the past two years.
At first glance the pandemic, like the past, was a foreign country: masks were few and far between, occasional hand sanitising stations stood unloved and social distancing was impossible. Yet Covid-19’s varied impact remained all too evident.
The last time the world’s best graced Melbourne, they were met by a sea of yellow – fans supporting local favorite Daniel Ricciardo of the French team Renault. Three years and a pandemic later, the dominant color palate had subtly shifted to bright orange; the Australian driver having moved to McLaren and the Renault name no longer visible on the grid, with the teamrebranding as Alpine.
The Australian Grand Prix has always been popular but tickets to watch the street circuit racing around Albert Park Lake sold out so quickly that five new grandstands were built to increase capacity. That growth has been fueled by Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’, a viral sensation during lockdown that made the technical sport more accessible to audiences. It has also helped attract a more diverse demographic – according to race organizers, 40% of attendees this year were women, up from only 25% in the past.
At a time of climate crisis, skyrocketing fuel prices and war in Ukraine, 20 drivers and countless staff crisscrossing the globe to compete in petrol-guzzling speed machines seems incongruous. A small solar array at Albert Park was no doubt meant to highlight the sport’s commitment to climate action; instead, the tokenistic gesture only underscored the problem – Formula One’s annual carbon emissions are almost equivalent to a small nation (it has committed, rather optimistically, to net zero by 2030). The prominent sponsor signage for Aramco, the Saudi state oil company and the world’s largest corporate carbon emitter, was conspicuous.
So too the sport’s complicity in human rights abuses. Drivers flew to Melbourne from Saudi Arabia, having contested a grand prix in the capital, Jeddah. (The first Saudi Grand Prix, in 2021, came three years after the government had executed regime critic Jamal Khashoggi.) This year the traveling circus will not visit Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix. Yet they have raced in Sochi every year since 2014, the same year Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Formula One’s shameless sportswashing efforts will instead take the sport back to Baku, Azerbaijan (ranked “not free” by Freedom House in their annual assessment of human rights and civil liberties). The season began in Bahrain, also deemed not free.
But trackside at Albert Park, these concerns, along with the pandemic, were kept firmly out of mind. The top end of town convened in hospitality booths; dedicated fans with dollars to spend enjoyed sweeping grandstand views, and the rest staked out their own spot on a grassy hill or by the barricades.
The guttural roar from the grandstand, as the drivers took part in their traditional pre-race exhibition lap, evoked simpler times, before “Covid-safe” had entered the lexicon. The race itself, won by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, was thrilling. The high-octane spills, daring over-takeing and chess-like tactical nous from the leading teams kept fans on the edge of their seats.
For all its well-published flaws, for all the questions that linger around the viability of this male-dominated, carbon-intensive sport in the current era, few can deny the enthralling simplicity of Formula One. For fans who packed into the South Melbourne venue to watch people drive really, really fast, the spectacle offered that sweet relief of escapism from a complicated reality.
The pandemic is not over. Australia, and the world, are beset by challenges. But at least, after two long years, Formula One is back at Albert Park. That alone earned plenty of cheer on Sunday.