Updated: Sep 21
The Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix was a race unlike any other.
Two-and-a-half hours of non-stop excitement from the first turn, an unprecedented three red flags, and a finish behind the safety car were just some of the treats witnessed by the record-setting crowds at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia yesterday.
The Netflix series Drive to Survive and the F1 races in my hometown of Austin, Texas as well as in Miami and Las Vegas have heightened American interest in Formula 1, and I was in Australia specifically to see the third race of the F1 season.
Tickets for the three-day event were sold out well in advance, but last month I was able to purchase a great seat for US $500 in the Lauda Grandstand near Turn 12 for both the Saturday and Sunday sessions.
When arriving in Melbourne, the easiest and most affordable transit option is the Skybus for AUS $19, which drops you off at Spencer Street station, right in the Central Business District (CBD) of Melbourne.
My Airbnb was a 10-minute walk from the Spencer Street station, and I was also about a 15-minute walk from the tram to take me to the racetrack at Albert Park in the St. Kilda neighborhood of Melbourne.
Getting to the Race: The easiest (and free) option is to take a tram to your gate. For Gates 5, 8, 9, and 10 catch the tram from the Melbourne Central tram stop along Swanston Street. Melbourne Central is the origination of the tram line during the Thursday to Sunday race days so it is best to board there instead of the much-busier Flinders Street Station, as the tram will already be full when it arrives at that stop. I can not tell you how many upset people I watched when my full tram passed by without letting any additional passengers on. You DO NOT want to be that person standing there. Please take my advice. To return to the city, trams run extra service along the same line. The trip takes about 30-45 minutes depending on train line traffic. Rideshare services: Uber is available as well as DiDi (which is the most used rideshare service in Australia).
Saturday April 1, 2023: Free Practice 3 and Qualifiying
After arriving late Friday night, I woke up Saturday morning to a crisp morning of clouds and sun in Melbourne.
I left my high-rise Airbnb and walked through Flagstaff Gardens, an urban oasis popular for picnics with locals at lunchtime during the weekdays, and made my way to the Melbourne Central tram stop.
Aussies drive and walk on the LEFT side (not the right), so be sure and be a good tourist and walk on the left side to avoid causing congestion.
As soon as I arrived at Albert Park, I was immediately floored by the never-ending helicopter traffic to and from the area. Apparently, for the truly fashionable, arrival by helicopter is the ONLY way to travel to and from the race, and for rides starting at only AUS $75, this could be an option, depending on your budget.
Click here for more information.
I got to my seats just in time for the Formula 1 Free Practice Session 3 from 12.30 to 1:30pm, the last opportunity for the F1 drivers to test their cars around the racetrack before the afternoon qualifying. The driver for whom I root, Max Verstappen of Holland, had the fastest lap time, which boded well for later in the day.
Towards the end of the Free Practice session, it began to rain, which was the start of a strange Melbourne weather pattern that alternated cold rain and warm sunshine. Apparently, this is typical for Melbourne, and it is said you can experience all four seasons in a day here, which on this Saturday, I found to be true.
Given the unpredictable climate, it is best to bring multiple layers with you to the race. Here is what else you may want to bring to the Australian Grand Prix.
WHAT TO BRING TO THE RACE (in your backpack) Suncreen and Hat Waterproof Rain Jacket or Poncho Portable USB Charger Binoculars (if you have them) Unopened Water Bottle(s) Note - unlike many sporting events in the US, which require a clear bag policy, this was not the case at the Australian Grand Prix. There are bag checks, but they are not too extensive.
As the fans waited for the 4pm Formula 1 qualifying, we enjoyed the Sprint Race in Formula 2 (F2), which is the feeder league for Formula 1.
The 23-lap F2 Sprint Race around the Albert Park Circuit excited the crowd, which pulsed in anticipation of the larger and faster F1 cars to come ahead in qualifying (the fastest lap in Formula 2 was about 15 seconds slower than Formula 1 for reference).
The F2 Sprint Race saw an American named Jak Crawford take 2nd place, after which there was an aerial display by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
It was great to see the tight formation of six World War II-era fighter planes passing over the Albert Park Race Track.
By 3.45pm, the stands were packed in anticipation of qualifying, the results of which sets the starting positions for the race on Sunday.
At the end of the one-hour qualifying session, Max Verstappen's Red Bull recorded the fastest lap at 1 minute and 17.4 seconds, meaning he would sit in pole position for the race Sunday.
The two Mercedes racers, George Russell and Lewis Hamilton finished second and third and Fernando Alonso in fourth. The Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles LeClerc were fifth and 7th, respectively.
Sergio Perez, Max Verstappen's Red Bull teammate, was sliding all around the racetrack and ended up in last place, meaning he would start from pit lane on Sunday.
After the racing events finished, there were three live performances near the fan zone.
The night finished with a fireworks display at 8.30pm.
Sunday April 2, 2023: Race Day
Sunday morning brought ample, warm sunshine and excitement for a great race day.
Again, the tram travel was not a hassle, as long as you left the CBD before 10:30am.
The F1 race was at 3pm, so I had some time to explore the concessions at Albert Park.
Concessions and Bathrooms Food truck-style options near the Lauda Grandstand offered souvlaki to dumplings and everything in between. Credit cards are widely accepted, so no need for cash. If you do not have the latest gear from your favorite driver or team, do not fret! There are plenty of merchandise stands from which to purchase your apparel. Prices seemed to be the same as in the US, except they were in Aussie dollars, which are worth about 67 cents (so you are getting a discount buying here). There are plenty of port-a-potties at every gate, and I never experienced a line for the restroom.
I settled into my seats for the Driver's Parade, which began promptly at 1pm local time. The Driver's Parade is where each driver cruises around the track in a fancy car waving to fans before the race.
Here is Max Verstappen in the Driver's Parade.
Then, there was another flyover by the RAAF!
The actual race was one for the ages.
The 2023 Australian Grand Prix saw three red flags (which happens when a severe crash forces all the drivers back into pit line while the track is cleared) - a FIRST EVER occurrence in Formula 1.
On the very first lap, Max Verstappen lost his lead in Turn 1 to George Russell and then in Turn 3 to Lewis Hamilton.
It took Verstappen almost ten laps and several safety car stops to recover the lead.
It looked like the two-time reigning World Champion would race away with the victory, holding a more than ten second advantage over his closest opponent.
UNTIL DISASTER STRUCK.
A severe crash meant a third red flag, which had never before happened in a Formula One race.
It was now lap 57 of 58, and all of the cars were in the pit area waiting for their standing re-start.
A standing re-start is basically like lining up on the grid and starting all over again, so Max's huge lead over the second-place Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes evaporated immediately due to the crash.
The race was now already well over 2 hours long, which is like going into overtime in the Final Four.
The record Aussie crowd was buzzing and ready for the final excitement. Their local favorite, Oscar Piastri of McLaren, was in line to potentially get points (meaning a top-10 finish). Lewis Hamilton might overtake Max Verstappen and win the race for Mercedes fans. Fernando Alonso's Aston Martin loomed in third place.
Anything could happen in these final two laps.
The lights went out, and they were off to the races!
AND THEN THERE WAS ANOTHER MAJOR CRASH! Multiple cars collided into walls and each other.
This was unprecedented. What would the race officials do???
Would they stop the race and declare Max for the win? Would they line them up and race again on lap 57?
If this were March Madness, would we go to the equivalent of Double Overtime???
Ultimately, and to the dismay of the crowd, race officials decided that the race would end on lap 58 of 58 under safety car conditions, which meant that the order of the last standing re-start on lap 57 decided the race's results.
Only 12 of the 20 cars that started the race actually finished.
To watch the official F1 highlights of the race, click HERE.
After over two and a half hours of racing, here is my video of the final lap - lap 58 of 58 - behind the safety car in their finishing positions:
Max Verstappen, Red Bull
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin
Additional Things to Do in Melbourne
If you have a few extra days either before or after the race, as I did, here are some highlights to check out.
National Gallery of Victoria (NGV): This is an outstanding art museum with European art from the 1200s all the way to today. When I went on the Monday after the race, there were many F1 fans in their gear visiting the gallery.
St. Kilda Beach: This popular spot near the race track is an iconic Venice Beach-style neighborhood offering many beachfront cafes.
In addition, the Melbourne Comedy Festival occurs at the same time as the Formula One race and runs through April 23.
If you are an F1 fan, I highly recommend checking out the Australian Grand Prix. If you have the ability to be in Australia in late March and early April, tickets are more affordable than attending an F1 race in Austin, Miami or Las Vegas, and you get to visit the land down under as a bonus.