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On top down under

Maurice Hamilton March 14, 2012
The season kicks off at Albert Park this weekend © Getty Images
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There can be no better place on the Formula One planet than Melbourne for the opening race of the season. A bit far away for those of us living in Europe, perhaps. But, as a location for what feels like the start of term, this venue is fit for purpose.

The first race goes beyond providing major clues about who's quick and who's not. It's the place where everyone - not just the drivers - lays down a marker about who will be doing what, and to whom. You can see it on the faces of the various team members; from management to mechanics; from corporate to catering.

When you reach the last race in late November - particularly if the championship has been settled - there is a chilled-out attitude among personnel totally familiar with the unique routine of a race weekend. They will know what to expect and they will have proved that they can perform. But, at the opening race, the need to deal with whatever comes at them - and be seen to deal with it - is as sharply defined and as mildly uncomfortable as the knife-edge creases on their starchy new uniforms. Preoccupied expressions have yet to be replaced by practised calm. You can imagine, therefore, that the location will either help or hinder the tricky induction to another season in such a ferociously competitive business. I've been lucky enough to see the season kick off in Long Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Phoenix, Sao Paulo, Bahrain and, for 14 of the past 16 seasons, Melbourne.

Bahrain was the worst, followed closely by Sao Paulo. Given my love of Interlagos as a passionate place for motor sport (not something you can even begin to say about Bahrain), you will gather that the deciding 'First Race Factor' is the surrounding environment when it comes to staging the team and sponsor 'get-to-know-you' functions that accompany the start of any season.

In Bahrain in 2010, for instance, the newly-formed Mercedes team introduced themselves and Michael Schumacher in a Mercedes dealership in a suburb of Manama. All very nice but not a patch on where we will be on Thursday when Mercedes-AMG host a lunch overlooking St Kilda Beach (which has the added benefit of being a jaunty tram ride from the track).

Good times: Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton at St Kilda Beach in 2007 © Sutton Images
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McLaren used the same location in 2007 as they swept Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso ashore in a powerful dingy and had them pose on the beach for photographers before engaging in a relaxed Q+A with the hacks. Then we adjourned inside The Stoke House restaurant for seared tuna, smoked trout and a drop of nicely chilled Chardonnay. I mean, you've got to get your priorities right. It's difficult to do that sort of thing in the middle of a dismal desert or by a stinking Brazilian river.

A couple of years later, Vodafone had us assemble at a cricket ground (not the MCG, unfortunately) to see Lewis meet Shane Warne and discuss their dramatically different sporting occupations. Even though I know very little about cricket, I could appreciate the rare treat of being able to stand in the late summer warmth a few metres behind Warne and admire the deceptively languid style of such a destructive leg-spin bowler. It's a bit difficult to do that sort of thing in downtown Phoenix.

The occasion that stands out most came at Long Beach in 1981. Mario Andretti was driving for Alfa Romeo and a breakfast press call had been arranged on the Queen Mary. On a typically perfect morning in that part of the world, the Beach Boys came on the car radio as I cruised along the freeway leading to the floating hotel. En route to meet one of the most charismatic drivers of all time and the season about to start, I couldn't help but muse that life doesn't get much better than this.

Melbourne ticks all the boxes for Formula One © Getty Images
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I think you can see where I'm coming from. The cosmopolitan city of Melbourne suits all tastes and commercial requirements. And, when that's all said and done, the Albert Park paddock is one of the best of the season. None of your acres of concrete and F1 personnel hiding in air-conditioned smoked glass offices.

In Albert Park you have neatly manicured grass lawns between the garages and the hospitality units; a place where the teams are encouraged to sit outside and contribute to a garden party atmosphere that embraces the need for the renewing of old acquaintances and the forming of new.

Questions will continue to be asked about who will top the podium this season. We might have a clue when the chequered flag falls on Sunday. But, until then, the speculation will be matched by a location that has no equal as the starting point to what should be a cracking season. This is simply another way of me saying I haven't the faintest idea who's going to win.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live