The final F1 race at Adelaide – Clive James' view of the '95 Australian GP

F1

After 11 years as the popular host of the Australian Grand Prix, Adelaide held its last F1 race in 1995. The weekend was recorded in a Clive James documentary: a snapshot of a previous era in Formula 1

1995 Australian Grand Prix Podium

The final podium at Adelaide in 1995

Pascal Rondeau / Getty Staff

“Adelaide: one of Australia’s greatest tourist attractions. Perhaps the most civilised, elegant little cities in the southern hemisphere. A pretty, gentle place on the human scale, offering year-round peace, quiet, refined wines and nothing noisier than a koala belching after an excess of gum-tips.”

That’s how the great and much-missed Clive James described the former home of the Australian Grand Prix, when he paid a visit to what was its last Formula 1 race 25 years ago this week. A long-time F1 fan, the writer, broadcaster, intellectual and poet filmed a charming documentary for TV that captured a voyeur’s perspective of the 1995 race, and a snapshot of a sport in fascinating transition.

Adelaide, as James described, was a comparatively low-key choice of venue for F1 compared to Melbourne, where the race would switch as the new season-opener for 1996. But since 1985, the state capital of South Australia had offered a perfect sign-off to each F1 year and there was a genuine sense of regret in the paddock that this would be its last grand prix. Melbourne, Australia’s sporting capital and also a delightful place to spend time, would become popular among F1 folk too – but for those who remember it, Adelaide had more charm, and a street track that often seemed to inspire great drama.

Nigel Mansell’s tyre blow-out in 1986 and Michael Schumacher’s professional foul on Damon Hill in 1994 are the signature moments that probably define the race, but in 1995 the world titles had long been wrapped up before the city’s final F1 fling. Schumacher and Benetton, this time with Renault V10 power, had embarrassed Hill and Williams in a season that had yet unseen consequences for the Englishman.

Michael Schumacher, 1994 Australian GP

Schumacher’s Benetton sits wedged in the wall after his infamous crash with Damon Hill

Grand Prix Photo

He would gain some form of redemption the following year by winning the world title – only to discover he’d been sacked before the campaign was over. Turns out Frank Williams and Patrick Head had lost their faith in him somewhere amidst the turmoil of his messy 1995.

The Adelaide race was a dead rubber, then. But at the end of another long slog of a season, here was a chance for Hill to end a tricky time and head into the winter on a high. And along with the farewell to a popular host city, the grand prix also marked significant full stops for several driver and team combos – most notably for imperious Schumacher and Benetton.

Now a two-time world champion, he was already looking ahead to a new chapter with Ferrari. For Flavio Briatore, Pat Symonds and the crew from Enstone, this was a swansong for a wonderful period in the which the team had risen from ‘noisy neighbour’ pretenders to world champions. They had no way of knowing it, under the guise of Benetton at least, they’d never have it so good again.

Johnny Herbert was also aware this would be his last race for Benetton, and despite his two wins at Silverstone and Monza, he’d shed few tears. As he told Motor Sport recently in a joint ‘Lunch with’ interview with Hill, even now he has mixed feelings about his best F1 season in terms of results. Life as team-mate to Schumacher had been hard work.

Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger, 1995 Australian GP

Alesi and Berger would make the swap to Benetton for ’96

Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

Taking the Benetton seats for 1996 would be Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, both of whom were signing off from Ferrari in Adelaide. On the face of it, a move from F1’s most loved and most underperforming team to the one that had just dominated the championship looked a hot move – but neither would cover themselves in glory at Benetton. Alesi, who had finally become a GP winner in ’95 in Canada, had already enjoyed his best F1 days.

The class of 1995 look and sound fantastic, on a tough street circuit that would need revisions to host F1 today

David Coulthard too, was about to make a defining career move, giving up a seat in a race- and championship-winning Williams for a McLaren-Mercedes still very much a work in progress. Hindsight. It’s easy to judge him now for chasing the money, but the Scot never felt truly loved at Williams, especially after a few too many mistakes during his own unsatisfying ’95. The McLaren deal did make sense back then – but he knows today that he gave up what was probably his best shot at a world title in signing it.

Meanwhile over at Jordan, with whom Clive James was a guest for the weekend, insouciant Eddie Irvine prepared to sign off from the team that had given him his F1 break – as he prepared for the viper’s nest excitement of becoming team-mate to Schumacher at Ferrari. He cut a relaxed figure in Australia – but then again, when wasn’t that the case?

Watching James’s documentary now, a quarter of a century later, you’re struck by how little some aspects of F1 have changed – and conversely how entirely different much of it is. Ignoring our current COVID reality for a moment, the people, the jostling paddock and grid scenes haven’t dated too much – although Hill is a great deal less grey! And Schumacher looks so fresh-faced… Meanwhile, out on track the class of 1995 look and sound fantastic, on a tough street circuit that would need a raft of revisions to host F1 today. Those notoriously high kerbs would be shaved flat for starters.

It was one of those kerbs, of course, that launched Mika Häkkinen into a sickening accident in his McLaren, following a puncture in practice on the Friday. Only an emergency track-side tracheostomy would save his life and the footage used in James’ documentary, from a stationary camera behind the barrier he hit, conveys the violence of the impact. The out-of-control car disappears from view and you just hear a chilling smack.

Images of James looking on from the Jordan pit, as Irvine and the team are glued to monitors in the aftermath, capture those dark, empty moments in the wake of a serious accident. Häkkinen’s fragile status cast a long shadow over the weekend – until news filtered through the next day that the Finn had regained consciousness and had even apparently checked his ‘crown jewels’ were intact. Always a good sign.

From the archive

The documentary includes a fascinating, rare and extremely awkward joint interview James managed to secure with Schumacher and Hill, thanks to ring master Bernie Ecclestone cracking the whip. Their rivalry was always an odd one. Entirely different as people, we all knew Schumacher was on another planet in terms of pure ability, but Hill had his father’s grit and determination to make the most of the chance he’d landed at Williams – and that likeable mix of a relatively normal, decent, intelligent man facing up to his own self-doubts gave extra meaning to his battles with the greatest driver of this generation.

James had already interviewed Schumacher alone, during which he had punctured the perceptions of the then 26-year-old’s supposed arrogance. When asked what he liked to do in his spare time, Michael rambles a little about taking pleasure from watching the sun rise and set, and looking at the stars. “I found him no more arrogant than William Wordsworth being interviewed about a host of golden daffodils,” quips James.

Together, Michael and Damon sit around a table, their arms folded, looking deeply uncomfortable. Have they ever had a laugh together, asks James? “I think we did, yeah – but I don’t remember it,” says Schumacher. “We’re not best friends. We respect each other, sometimes more than newspapers and television tell.”

They’re both asked what they think of each other, which only increases the toe-curling – James never was one to wilt from asking what few others would. Hill’s answer reminds us that communication channels between these two were always largely limited to what they read about each other in the press – no wonder they never truly understood each other. Schumacher, tellingly, doesn’t really give a straight answer. It’s what they don’t say to James that really offers the most insight into the intensity of their lives at that time.

Damon Hill, 1995 Australian GP

Hill crosses the line to win the 1995 race and the final one at Adelaide

GREG WOOD/AFP via Getty Images

The grand prix itself turned out to be an odd one, a mix of high attrition and strange end-of-term mistakes. Coulthard took the lead from pole position man Hill, but then ended his Williams career ignominiously, crashing into the pit wall as he came in for a stop; Schumacher tagged Alesi – of all people, given he was about to take his seat – as he attempted to pass after a slow start, ending the race for both; Berger’s Ferrari blew up, as did Herbert’s Benetton; Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Sauber retired from second place; and Irvine suffered a terminal engine problem with a rare Jordan podium in his sights.

As Hill stroked to an easy win to give him that little glow heading into a winter during which a psychological re-boot would work wonders, Olivier Panis found himself inheriting second place for Ligier – and Gianni Morbidelli scored the only podium of his 67-race F1 career in his Footwork-Hart.

And with that, Adelaide’s F1 history, not to mention a landmark season, was over. On one hand, it feels like yesterday; on the other, it could have been 100 years ago rather than 25.

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