There's nothing particularly wrong with the season's traditional curtain-raiser at first glance...in fact it seems to have everything going for it.
Melbourne is one of Australia's finest cities, the circuit itself is a street circuit plonked picturesquely around a lake through an open green space in the upscale suburb named after the park itself. This part of Melbourne has long, sweeping beaches, historic architecture, grand buildings...all in all one of the poshest parts of the city. You'd never know that the area around the track has in the past been used both as a military camp and a garbage dump.
The track itself is popular with drivers. Fast and sweeping, it is easy to learn and as far as F1 tracks go it's a doddle to hook up a relatively quick lap once you've done so. Its corners are all named after famous racers or local landmarks, the setting is lovely, there's the odd unexpected result since the race moved here since 2006...
And anyway...look at the track layout. Perfectly inoffensive, isn't it? Nice gentle bends, wide runoffs, none of that nasty switchbacky stuff or plunges down from full whack to first gear of the kind that will tempt some oik from the lower reaches of the grid to try his luck on the aristocrats and risk taking them out.
It's very calm. Safe. Inoffensive. The very epitome of a modern F1 circuit.
It's bloody hateful.
The trouble Melbourne has is twofold...one, it's at the start of the season so the weird results are bound to happen as cars and drivers shake off the winter ruse, so it gets overrated. And as if this problem wasn't enough...
It's not Adelaide.
And the fact that it has to compete with Adelaide will always make Melbourne's GP second best.
Before the race took place at Albert Park, the Australian GP was traditionally the climax of the season. Fans across the world would stay up late or get up early to watch titles decided, feuds settled, and drama aplenty year after year, courtesy of a vicious little bastard of a street circuit in South Australia.
Shaped like a stingray with as vicious and pointed a barb hidden in its tail as any of its lookalike fish, the Adelaide Street Circuit wound its way through narrow streets for 2.3 miles (yup, only 2.3...none of these interminably long constant-radius corners here and 1:50 laps here), switchbacking back and forth through the streets on the way up to one absolutely pig-iron git of a corner at the end of the titanic Brock/Brabham Straight-a pair of straights with only a fifth-gear kink right in the middle that made up nearly a third of the circuit. Said corner was a hairpin-one of those "flat-out to all but stopped", death-or-glory-encouraging hairpins. The kind that F1 fans love, and F1 drivers hate. Particularly when Pastor Maldonado's around with an urge to use one to turn his Lotus into a helicopter.
And the drama...dear god, the drama.
Mansell's heartbreaking, World Championship-losing blowout on the Brabham Straight in '86-one of the iconic F1 moments:
As if that wasn't enough...there was Michael Schumacher in 1994, either cynically taking out Damon Hill to avoid losing the title after making a mistake or defending his line to the death and winning the title as a result:
watch.0.html You often got drama like that on a cramped, claustrophobic, PROPERLY bumpy street circuit doing 81 laps at 1:18 a pop, where titles were on the line.
The Melbourne model of a cruise round a track made up predominantly of third and fourth-gear corners, specially smoothed surfaces and cars still not really sure how they're running, usually won by a Mercedes/Red Bull/front-running car du jour casually cruising off into the sunset sadly simply doesn't compare.
That said, Melbourne undoubtedly has its charms...they're all just...well, a bit nicey-nicey compared to some of the evil prospects awaiting our drivers later on in the year.
But saying that...
What's a lap like?
Melbourne starts with a hammer downhill from the line, into a narrowing 3rd gear right that immediately goes back into an opening left into the 2nd DRS zone (the first is the start/finish straight). Down to first for turn 3, right...accelerate briefly, left...up to 4th, right, then through a wiggle or two before slamming on the brakes for a right/left/right complex...accelerating all the time and flicking the DRS switch for turn eight...long, long right then a short straight and down again for...believe it or not...another bloody right left chicane. This is the third of them, and it opens out onto the back of the circuit for cars to pound along into a quick slightly separated left-right chicane (I know, it goes the other way. They're getting sneaky!) before a squirt into two right handers-accelerating up before the slowest bend on the circuit, turn 15. Come out of that, throw the car hard and accelerating into the last right hander...and you're back on the pit straight. If you've locked everything in perfectly, you'll do a lap in round about 1:30 or a little below come race time.
Albert Park is like the F1 equivalent of a poodle, or a meal of plain spaghetti. It's a perfectly acceptable example of its kind. It fulfils all the basic needs you'd expect from it. Some people even like it a lot.
But you can't shake the feeling that there are just so many BETTER, more interesting versions of what it is out there. Versions with teeth. With flavour. With personality. Versions anyone not born with a mysterious attraction to beige would love far more.
The best way I can put it is this...Albert Park is like a toilet. It's a product that is fully open about it being designed functionally and simply to do a job in the least dramatic and interesting way possible. A toilet makes no apologies for being anything but a receptacle for holding crap. Albert Park makes no apologies for being anything but a place to get the F1 season started and everyone to get back into the swing of things before the interesting circuits come along later in the year.
And that's why you shouldn't, ever expect too much from the first race of the year. Because its venue doesn't demand much.
It's sad, really. But as the saying goes..."expect little, and you'll be disappointed less".
That might as well be seared into the Albert Park tarmac.