The joy of returning to Melbourne is a glimpse into the ‘ideal world’ of F1

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The Australian Grand Prix was missed. The collective joy of Formula 1 to be back in Melbourne is visible at almost every turn.

After two years of absence and three years since a race, there is obviously a huge local appetite for this grand prix. It’s expected to be one of the biggest turnouts in Melbourne, matching the inaugural event in 1996 for the full weekend.

Even absent the usual season-opening plot, there’s another kind of anticipation: the next episode of Max Verstappen versus Charles Leclerc; how the new circuit will improve the show; the fortune of local hero Daniel Ricciardo.

Inside the F1 bubble, the mood is just as optimistic. Being back in Australia is an intangible feeling with a tangible consequence: smiles, enthusiasm and lots of positive talk.

In an ideal world, all F1 races would have this. In a commercial reality, they don’t.

There will be a new race in the United States in Las Vegas, for example, on a street track designed specifically to incorporate an existing landmark. A mix of glitzy and corporate infrastructure around the new Miami Grand Prix was revealed earlier this week, for a track built around a massive stadium.

The Melbourne races have generally not been so exciting, of course. But it’s a track the drivers enjoy and everything else around the event more than makes up for that. Vegas and Miami will have to find a way to balance style and substance or else they might contribute to F1’s bottom line, but not much else.

One factor that amplifies the qualities Australia has to offer F1 is that this race follows a series of Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Abu Dhabi-Bahrain-Saudi Arabia Grands Prix in the 2021/2022 seasons, which creates an inevitable juxtaposition.

Start of Saudi Arabia F1 GP

F1 is a global championship and it should encompass as many continents and regions as possible. It would be disrespectful to make fun of races in places without heritage and to question their place. It would also be wrong to suggest that they offer nothing beyond obvious business benefits.

Bahrain is now a long-running F1 race, on the calendar since 2004. It establishes its own F1 heritage and has a track that puts on a good race. Jeddah, despite all of Saudi Arabia’s troubles and track safety issues, is another venue that lends itself to a good sporting spectacle.

However, they have shortcomings as events. It’s often not for lack of trying. But Bahrain pales in comparison to Mexico. Abu Dhabi is not like Singapore.

Therefore, they are not so famous. There are valid reasons for this, whether it’s the quality of the track (a particular issue for Abu Dhabi), broader serious issues like human rights or specific circumstances like event security.

The atmosphere in Melbourne this week is a world apart from the tension that at times plagued the paddock in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, where a nearby missile strike added to the general unease at racing in the country.

Many in F1 were relieved when this event ended and it remains to be seen how many are truly comfortable going back. Australia couldn’t have triggered more opposing emotions.

It is a powerful contrast. And in an ever-changing climate for the F1 calendar amid constant expansion, with several races like those in the Middle East signing long-term deals, it’s a timely reminder of what separates a good grand prix from ‘a big.

Australian GP Melbourne F1

We got a hint of this last year when races in Austin, Mexico City and Brazil returned to the schedule after a COVID-enforced hiatus. When F1 returns to Canada, Singapore and Japan, there will be a stellar response to F1 and those in it.

These are races that tick a few vital boxes: a place that loves F1, a place that F1 loves to go to, a local/national community that wholeheartedly buys the race and (important but not essential) a grand prize that has a heritage reinforced by a healthy history of high level pilots of yesterday and today.

It is important that F1 is back in Australia. Some races come with heightened anticipation, an explosion of emotions and an atmosphere that cannot be forced.

After two years on the sidelines, F1 has one of those comeback races.

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