First Australian Grand Prix

Albert Park's first Australian Grand Prix in 1953 was very different from the event we know today.

'My memories on the day were that it was fairly hot and there was a massive crowd .. It was just so friendly, it was like a big picnic.'

John Reaburn, a spectator in 1953

BY THE time this year's Formula 1 season revs into action on March 17, a cast of thousands will have been involved getting the cars and their drivers to the grid. More than 100,000 spectators will fill Albert Park, while tens of millions more will be tuned in around the world as the season's curtain-raiser unfolds.

Things were rather different when Albert Park hosted its first Australian Grand Prix 60 years ago - and not just because the race was run in the opposite direction.

Of the 40 starters in 1953, only 18 finished . There were huge discrepancies in the capabilities of the cars, drivers competed in open-neck shirts, and pit crews - if they can be called such - were made up of two or three friends. Hay bales were used as safety barriers and a double-decker bus, borrowed from the Tramways and parked at the start-finish line, acted as the race control centre.

Nevertheless, the 18th Australian Grand Prix - run by the Light Car Club of Australia and the Army's Southern Command, which had barracks at Albert Park - was a spectacle unlike any seen before in the country's motorracing history. Back then most races took place at country airstrips, so staging the 200-mile Australian Grand Prix in the heart of the city brought motor racing to the masses like never before.

'The site of the Grand Prix was brilliant and the atmosphere was fantastic,' recalls Neal Charge, who competed in the race alongside his brother Stuart. 'There was a lot of interest from all around. Being so close to the city was a major factor for the spectators... with such a spectacular background, it had everything going for it - and nothing has changed. start line. That was my first time on a Grand Prix grid, and although I was well back on the grid it was a thrilling thing to do. You could see the crowd on the road, mostly down the main straight. The crowd within 20 feet of you: that made a big difference.'

The race was won by Doug Whiteford, racing in a French Lago Talbot, who was one of only a handful of drivers expected to compete for the title. Among the others with cars capable of challenging him was Stan Jones, the father of 1980 world champion Alan Jones, but his Maybach suffered mechanical problems while he was leading with just three laps to go, forcing him to retire. A young Jack Brabham was among those registered to take part in his Cooper Bristol, but he failed to make the starting grid.

An estimated 50,000 people turned out for what those present recall as a particularly friendly occasion.

John Reaburn, who attended as a 17-year-old spectator and later became a successful racer in his own right, says: 'There was huge excitement. The press had been playing it up.

'My memories on the day were that it was fairly hot and there was a massive crowd for a first event down there. It was just so friendly, it was like a big picnic. The spectators weren't all males with an enthusiasm for cars; there were rugs on the grass, picnic baskets, a lot of fun; people mixed and all seemed to get on very well.'

This relaxed atmosphere seems to have pervaded the entire occasion, from drivers and their crews through to those running the race. According to Graham Hoinville, a driver who acted as one of the race marshals in 1953, the sport was run mainly by participants and enthusiasts.

'There was a hierarchy of senior members of the sport, with some current racing drivers filling the official duty positions,' he says. 'Everyone knew everyone so things went smoothly.

'We borrowed a double-decker bus from the Tramways and parked it by the start-finish line. Various officials could sit there, with lap-scoring officials and commentators based in different locations around the circuit.' 'It was all very casual,' says Charge, who finished 13th in his MGTC, five places behind his brother. 'The scrutineers knew everyone, so if there was a ring-in they'd know.' Even more informal was the approach taken by those covering the race. 'The fantastic thing I remember was the broadcasters ,' Reaburn says. 'They had chairs stuck up on the top of the public dunnies - sometimes they'd have a desk up there.'

While the race may have lacked today's ultra professionalism , 1953 represented a major shift for motor racing in Australia, even if it didn't register on a global scale. Only when the race returned to Albert Park three years later did the wider world of motorsport pay attention to the fledgling scene in Australia.

In 1956, the Grand Prix was run in conjunction with the Melbourne Olympics. British superstar Stirling Moss brought his Maserati team to town and the Australian Grand Prix came of age.

'[ The 1956 race] was really the first occasion where we were exposed to genuine Formula 1 racing teams,' says Hoinville, by this stage working for Commonwealth Oil Refineries - part of BP, the company that funded the Maserati team. He spent time with the team's drivers, even accompanying them to Olympic events.

'I had to hold Stirling Moss back from jumping over the fence at the MCG,' he recalls, 'He wanted to get to the [very attractive] female Russian javelin thrower.'

Such distractions did not affect Moss's performance. Alongside teammate Jean Behra, he completed a one-two for Maserati. His countryman Peter Whitehead finished third in a Ferrari, with Australians Reg Hunt and Stan Jones taking fourth and fifth in their Maseratis.

Moss returned to Albert Park in 1958 to win the Melbourne Grand Prix, run that year as one of nine races in the Australian Drivers' Championship. About 70,000 spectators watched his clash with Brabham, who finished second in his Cooper-Climax . It was the last time Grand Prix racing was held in Melbourne for almost four decades , when a very different Formula 1 moved from Adelaide for the 1996 race. By then the Australian Grand Prix was an integral part of the World Championship, with the 1996 race marking Jacques Villeneuve's debut. The Canadian was almost successful, leading the race until an oil leak allowed Damon Hill to pick up where his fellow Briton had left off 38 years earlier. The track was also very different, not just running in the opposite direction - clockwise - but following a somewhat different route. More than 400,000 attended over the four days, with the event run so well it was later named Constructors' Association best Grand Prix of the year. Since then, Albert Park's crowds have witnessed Michael Schumacher's four wins, watched Jensen Button set down the marker for Brawn's spectacular season in 2009 and applauded as Mark Webber took fifth for the unfancied Minardi team on debut in 2002. Last year, Button triumphed again, his average speed of 214km/h highlighting just how far the race has come in 60 years: in 1953, Whiteford's average speed was 133km/h. With drivers groomed for careers at the top of the sport from an early age, backed by multi-million dollar teams and competing on a global circuit, it's a far cry from the days when the Charge brothers bought and maintained their own cars and brought mates along to man the pit lane.

'The modern Formula 1 is pretty fantastic - in another world from what I was used to,' Neal Charge says. 'It was a lot more romantic [in 1953], I believe. The advent of pure professionalism has made a difference in my opinion. As far as I was concerned, I was fit and I didn't need any preparation. Compared with what Mark Webber has to do, we were just playboys.

'The organisation was good back then but not the same as it has to be these days. Drivers are more organised now. We were a rabble.'

Some things never change, though.

'After cars, the next thing on my list would have been girls,' Reaburn recalls. 'There were a lot down there. They're still down there now, but I'm too old!'

According to the ofcial race report: 'A very serious afair was the irresponsible and light-hearted way that spectators more or less scampered across the road, something that should have been ruthlessly stamped out by civilian and military police, who were there in droves.'

FAST FACTS ABOUT THE 1953 RACE



The grid had 16 rows and 40 cars.

The race, scheduled for 64 laps, finished after 59.

Fastest lap of 2 minutes and 3 seconds was set by Stan Jones, who reached speeds of 147.2km/h.

Doug Whiteford won by five laps driving a Lago Talbot. He won in a time of 2 hours, 24 minutes and 50 seconds at an average speed of 131km/h.

The circuit was raced counterclockwise - opposite to the direction they drive today.

The race control centre was a double-decker bus.

The start/finish line was outside what is now the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre.

A young Sir Jack Brabham was included in the entry list but was a non-starter due to an issue with the bearings on his Cooper Bristol 1971cc.

The only safety barriers were hay bales.

1953 - 2013


It was the year of the Queen's coronation, the year Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Everest - and it was the year the Australian Grand Prix came to town, finding a home at Albert Park, close to Melbourne's heart. In 1953, sports-mad locals flocked to see the spectacle. Sixty years on, the 2013 Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix looks ahead to a new international season - but also looks back to pay homage to those who showed the way.

HERITAGE DAY


To mark 60 years since the first Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, Thursday, March 14 has been renamed Heritage Day. There will be free entry for all general admission patrons on Heritage Day as well as lots to see, including original cars from the 1953 race.





❊ Web Links ❊


First Australian Grand Prix 

www.grandprix.com.au









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