If Melbourne is truly the sporting capital of the world, as locals like to boast, so it is only right that Formula One in Albert Park has marked the first and now the last phase of the pandemic. Two years ago, the chaotic cancellation of the Grand Prix hours before the first exercise session unequivocally heralded a new worrying era. It was one of the first major international sporting events canceled 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 recovery of Formula 1 on the Australian coast marks the end of Covid-19 (the 9,510 cases and one death in Victoria on race day are very clear) but with a crowded crowd and a exciting race. , it was at least momentarily possible to forget the agitation of the last two years.
At first glance, the pandemic, like the past, was a foreign country: the masks were few and far between, occasional hand sanitization stations were not loved and social distance was impossible. Yet the varied impact of Covid-19 remained too evident.
The last time the most beautiful Melbourne in the world was greeted by a sea of yellows – fans who supported the local favorite Daniel Ricciardo of the French Renault team. Three years and a pandemic later, the dominant color palate had subtly changed to bright orange; the Australian driver has moved to McLaren and the Renault name is no longer visible on the grid, with the team rebranding as Alpine.
The Australian Grand Prix has always been popular, but tickets to watch the road circuit running around Albert Park Lake have sold out so quickly five new grandstands have been built to increase capacity. This growth was fueled by Netflix’s “Drive to Survive,” a viral sensation during the blockchain that made the technical sport more accessible to the audience. It also helped to attract a more diverse demographic – according to race organizers, 40% of participants this year were women, up from just a quarter in the past.
In a time of climate crisis, rising fuel prices and the war in Ukraine, 20 pilots and countless pilots crossing the globe to compete in petrol speeding cars seem inconsistent. A small solar array in Albert Park was undoubtedly designed 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 is committed, rather optimistically, to net zero by 2030). The sign of a prominent sponsor for Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company and the world’s largest corporate carbon emitter, was visible.
So does the complicity of sport in human rights abuses. The pilots flew to Melbourne from Saudi Arabia after competing in a Grand Prix in Jeddah, the capital of Saudi Arabia (the first GP of Saudi Arabia, in 2021, came three years after the Saudi government had executed regime critic Jamal Khashoggi). This year, the traveling circus will not be visiting Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix. However, they have been running in Sochi every year since 2014, the same year that Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Formula One sports washing engagements will instead bring sports to Baku, Azerbaijan (classified as “not free” by Freedom House in its annual assessment of human rights and civil liberties). The season begins in Bahrain, also considered “not free”.
But down the road in Albert Park, these concerns, along with the pandemic, have been firmly out of mind. The upper extremity of the city met in hospital cabins; Dedicated fans with dollars to spend enjoyed wide views of the grandstand, and the rest set up their own spot on a steep hill or near barricades.
The guttural roar from the grandstand, as the riders took part in their traditional pre-race performance lap, evoked simpler times, before “Covid-safe” was introduced into the lexicon. The race itself, won by Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, was exciting. High-octane spills, bold over-takes and new chess-like tactics from top teams kept fans on the edge of their seats.
For all its well-publicized flaws, for all the questions that revolve around the viability of this carbon-intensive men’s sport in the current era, few can deny the fascinating simplicity of Formula One. For the fans who packed into the South Melbourne venue to watch the people driving really, really, really fast, the show offered that sweet relief of evasion from a complicated reality.
The pandemic is not over. Australia, and the world, are facing challenges. But at least after two long years, Formula 1 is back in Albert Park. This alone gained a lot of joy on Sunday.