x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Webber at home in Australia and happy to experience magic of Melbourne

"It's always a good atmosphere; a good event. It's always a little unpredictable and there's always a few safety cars."

Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver, enjoyed a barbecue on Wednesday. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver, enjoyed a barbecue on Wednesday. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

In a week like this, even Australia's candy floss clouds want to be part of the sporting show.

On Wednesday, as Mark Webber cooked up a barbecue for the media, the white puffy mass in the blue sky above him took the form of a Formula One car. Or maybe it was a three-legged Aussie Rules footballer lying on his side.

Either way, it would not be out of place on a weekend one local taxi driver predicted would be "the busiest in Melbourne's history".

The V8 Supercars, having opened the season in Abu Dhabi last month, attracted 270,000 spectators to its second round in Adelaide last week. The three V8 races to be held this weekend at Albert Park will act as the undercard to the Australian Grand Prix, which itself attracted 305,000 race fans last year.

And yet look at any of the country's newspapers and you could be forgiven for thinking motor sports has as few followers as synchronised swimming in Sharjah.

The Melbourne-based The Age dedicated just two columns to Formula One and nothing to V8s.

The reason? The Australian Football League kicked off last night. Aussie rules, no doubt.

Much has been written about whether Melbourne — and indeed Australia — should remain on the F1 calendar. Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's rights holder who is at loggerheads with the city's lord mayor, is not expected to be here this weekend, although yesterday denied he was bound for New York to discuss the possibility of a grand prix on Staten Island.

The race certainly does not turn a profit, but it showcases the city to the world and the fans love it.

Indeed, when Bahrain was forced to withdraw from hosting its race two weeks ago, there was a feeling among many in F1 that the atmosphere in Australia is far more fitting for a season-opening race.

"I'm lucky to have a home race," Webber said yesterday, the blue sky having given way to an ominously overcast firmament.

"It's always a good atmosphere; a good event. It's always a little unpredictable and there's always a few safety cars."

The unpredictability of Sunday's race has never been so extreme. Not only are mixed weather reports being bandied around, but with several new regulations imposed by the Federation Internationale d'Automobile (FIA), and a new tyre supplier in Pirelli, none of the 12 teams truly know their own pace.

"There is a lot of questions for us to answer this weekend," said Webber, who has never finished better than fifth in Australia.

"We have done mileage on the tyres in the winter and they have given us a rough idea of what we should expect, but we need to go racing to see how best to adapt that within a grand prix in terms of where we elect to pit, how we are going to tackle the race from a strategic side. Those are the things that need answering."

Jenson Button, the 2009 drivers' champion, said he expects the tyres to play a massive part in this weekend's race, yet praised Pirelli for providing F1 with exactly what it asked for.

McLaren-Mercedes struggled during winter testing and managed only a fraction of the mileage rivals Ferrari and Red Bull clocked. But Button said he is "hoping to be as quick as the quickest" this weekend, although added: "I might be dreaming."

"They go like a switch," Button said of the tyres. "You feel big degradation then they go off the edge of the cliff. But Pirelli have done a good job in producing what they have been told to make and it is going to make it more exciting, which is what we all want.

"You're going to be surprised by how much overtaking you will see in the last stint [after teams complete their final pit stops]."

Lewis Hamilton, Button's teammate, this week dismissed constructors' champions Red Bull as just "a drinks company", but while McLaren continue to play down expectations having been forced to fit several new components this week in a late bid to be competitive, Webber was in no mood to follow suit in terms of his own team's expectations.

"We are just a drinks company," Webber said, "but we had a pretty good season last year, so hopefully we can build on that. The team has set a high bar in terms of looking for championships. Both of them would be nice."

RACE FACTS

The event
The Australian Grand Prix was originally held in Adelaide, but has been staged at Albert Park in Melbourne since 1996. The street circuit has been a popular fixture on the calendar since then, and has seen plenty of drama, crashes and overtaking. With the Bahrain Grand Prix having been cancelled this is the 14th time that Australia has hosted the opening race of the season.

Classic races
1998 This was a McLaren domination, but is memorable for the controversial decision by the British team to order David Coulthard to slow and allow Mika Hakkinen to overtake him for the win. Hakkinen had led from the start, but had mistakenly pitted after mishearing a radio communication, ceding the lead to Coulthard, before he moved aside for his Finnish teammate.

2002 A big accident at the start wiped out a number of front runners, leaving Michael Schumacher to stroll to the win in his Ferrari. But the chaos at the front allowed Mark Webber, the Australian, to score points on his race debut with an unexpected fifth in the uncompetitive Minardi. He and his compatriot Paul Stoddart, the Minardi team boss, were allowed to celebrate on the podium post race in front of the local fans.

2009 Jenson Button had looked to be out of a job after Honda had quit the series at the end of 2008. But from the ashes of the team came Brawn GP under Ross Brawn, the former team principal, and Button led home a surprising one-two in Melbourne, ahead of teammate Rubens Barrichello, to spark emotional scenes.

Recent winners
2010    J Button, McLaren
2009    J Button, Brawn GP
2008    L Hamilton, McLaren
2007    K Raikkonen, Ferrari
2006    F Alonso, Renault
2005    G Fisichella, Renault
2004    M Schumacher, Ferrari
2003    D Coulthard, McLaren
2002    M Schumacher, Ferrari
2001    M Schumacher, Ferrari
2000    M Schumacher, Ferrari