It was a stunning sunset which ended the first day of the Formula 1 Qantas Australian Grand Prix. The crimson sky and fireball setting sun at Albert Park in Melbourne had many a camera pointed its way.

All the National support categories had the track to themselves Thursday, including, V8 Supercars, Australian GT Championship, Tasman Formula 5000 Revival, Formula Ford, Mini Challenge, and Historic Demonstration. JAMIE WHINCUP/Triple 8 Holden has the V8 Supercar pole for Friday’s race, which is for bragging rights rather than championship points.

Speaking of sunsets, it was a topic of discussion at the Thursday afternoon FIA F1 Press Conference among drivers VITALY PETROV/Renault, JARNO TRULLI/Lotus and MARK WEBBER/Red Bull Racing. The question was raised about racing again in the the twilight, which was introduced last year, the bad sunlight conditions, and did they feel unsafe. Trulli said “We raised our concerns last year, but apparently nothing has changed. There is very little you can do on the safety side of the track, apart from starting the race an hour earlier, which probably won’t hurt anyone. We have given our opinion and that’s it. The FIA or whoever has decided to keep the twilight race at that time, so we just have to deal with it. This year, if we want to make a change for next year, we will say that we are very happy at the end of the race. That’s the only way.”

Webber said “Jarno has hit it on the head. If you picked the best tine to have a high speed sporting motor race event, obviously it’s not when the sun is at eye level with us. Anyway, that’s how it is for lots of different commercial reasons. As Jarno says, next time we say it’s fantastic and we should say we should have the race at 5 o’clock at every race in the season and I think they will move it somewhere else.”

All 24 F1 cars went through initial scrutineering and were found to be in conformance. One of the things checked in the cars is the cockpit exit time and the clearance of the driver’s knees. These were checked with Force India’s test/reserve driver, PAUL Di RESTA of Scotland. Both Di Resta and American driver J.R. HILDEBRAND of Sausalito CA tested with Force India in December. While Hildebrand “worked very hard and was impressive in the test,” according to team owner, Dr. VIJAY MALLYA, Di Resta got the ride.

The announced attendance for Thursday was 46,300, up from last year’s 42,300. The race’s theme is “Feel The Energy!” Maybe it takes a while. The TV monitors occasionally showed empty grandstands and open grounds. Even Brocky’s Hill was not packed. Around town, I didn’t see as much hype and promotion this year as I’ve noticed in year’s past. The FIA scheduling of Melbourne as the second rather than opening race of the season, and on top of the season’s start of wildly popular AFL (on the same four days) could be part of the lower-key atmosphere I sensed.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER/Mercedes was looking quite fit Wednesday afternoon as he quickly rode literally into the sunset on a two-seater bike with a male passenger.  He had arrived in town a day earlier than expected and had spent it making appearances in town.

Jenson Button signing autographs. Photo by Ron Searle
Jenson Button signing autographs. Photo by Ron Searle

Outside the Formula One Paddock gate, the Fan Viewing Stand was filled all day with hopeful fans awaiting a glimpse or maybe an autograph from the F1 drivers as they arrived or left., while a corps of Security Guards kept everyone orderly. Several drivers had exotic chauffeured cars pull up to the entrance for drop off or pick up of their sought-after passengers. FELIPE MASSA detoured from his silver Lamborghini to visit the enthusiastic spectators, while teammate and current points leader, FERNANDO ALONSO actually walked from the nearby car park. Both drivers signed and posed, as did several others including RUBENS BARRICHELLO/Williams, JENSON BUTTON/McLaren, and HEIKKI KOVALAINEN/Lotus. The eager gathering was well organized. One lookout would spot the driver, yell his name, and another would yell out what page in the race program, so they all could be ready for that treasured signature.

Keeping a lower profile was former F1 team owner, EDDIE JORDAN.

Friday at 12:30 pm local time, the F1 cars have their first practice on the 3.295 mile/5.303 km circuit. The current lap record of 1:24.125 is held by Schumacher, set in 2004.