For the past two decades, the Australian Formula One Grand Prix has called Melbourne home.
Each year, the motorsport carnival completely shuts down public access to the Albert Park reserve for about a week. For the rest of the year, the golf course, parklands, lake and sporting complexes are used daily by many Melbournians.
The suburban roads that make up the 5.3-kilometre circuit are also heavily trafficked – albeit at a maximum speed of 50km/h.
For drivers who regularly commute though the park, dodging ducks, cyclists and stray golf balls is the norm, but, what is it like when the barriers are put up and the speed limits taken away?
The Albert Park circuit is one of only four street circuits in the 2015 Formula One Season (Monaco, Singapore and Russia are the others), comprising 16 turns, running clockwise.
It is also the only circuit in the world where, after being declared officially ‘hot’ and ready for racing by the FIA, still allows non-competition traffic to run, by way of the Mercedes-Benz AMG Drive Experience.
Since 2009, Mercedes-Benz have offered a lucky few the opportunity to drive the ‘race condition’ Formula One track at pace, in a selection of high-performance AMG road cars.
And while that might just sound like terrific fun, what is it like in the context of a regular driver, used to a regular car driving under regular two-way traffic, 40-50km/h conditions?
With the help of 38 expert instructors, Mercedes have made available 38 cars, ranging from the A45 AMG hatch through to the SL63 AMG roadster – a fleet worth over $9.0 million dollars. The logistics involved must have been mind-blowing.
A makeshift ‘pit lane’ is set up at the golf club on Queens Road, so a lap starts on Lakeside Drive opposite the Powerhouse boat club.
Sitting naturally on the left side of the road, the reality of the situation only becomes apparent making the right turn (Turn 13) into Ross Gregory Drive. There’s no indicator being used here, no waiting in the middle of the road for oncoming traffic.
I am still treating things cautiously around Turn 14 and the deceptively tight Turn 15 – despite using the entire width of the track. Around Turn 16 and onto the straight, it’s time to open it up.
My car for the experience is the C63 AMG Edition 507 Coupe – the last naturally aspirated V8 member of the C63 family. With 373kW and 610Nm in a 1730kg package, the numbers on the speedo see 200-plus in no time.
I drove around here just the other day - this is a very different experience.
I am an Albert Park native. And in the week leading up to this year’s Grand Prix I was driving a Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Sport. I covered my regular tasks of taking Miss Five to swimming lessons at MSAC (Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre), visiting the ‘pirate’ park playground and making the return trip from Grandma’s house in Armadale via Lakeside Drive.
Only a few days ago I was pottering along this same stretch of road at under 40km/h, looking around to marvel at the giant Rolex bridges and grandstand infrastructure being assembled.
Now… What bridges?
My focus is out the windscreen, the speedo insignificant as the end of the straight comes up fast. Heavy on the brakes, the 507 squirming on it’s road tyres still coming up to temperature, and around the right-left sequence of Turn One and Two.
The driveway to Carousel is gone and we are fast again, past the driving range and again hard onto the brakes outside MSAC for the right-hander towards Redheads (I’m not sure if it’s even called that any more, but those mid-90's uni-night memories die hard).
As regular Albert Park visitors would know, the road normally veers to the left, over some speed humps and through a roundabout toward the park exit at the bottom of Clarendon St.
The race circuit heads right, through the carpark for Turns Four and Five – a tremendously fun section, as the car’s speed and grip through here mean you don’t need the brakes and can power out of the right hander onto Albert Road Drive.
This is normally a dead-end section of the roadway, providing parking either side and access to the South Melbourne Soccer Club and sailing sheds and restaurants on the water’s edge. Without question it is my favourite part of the circuit.
The curves are so subtle that you can plot a straight line through them and just power under the trees, heading to the very tight right-hand turn onto Lakeside Drive.
Brakes on. Harder. Harder still. Off the pedal, turn right, feed power, left then right again. Power… power…
Many hours of mine have been spent at the traffic lights here wondering what it would be like to open the throttle along the pretty, sweeping curves.
With the golf-course greens on your left and little sailboats on the water to your right, at the marked 50km/h limit it is a scenic cruise – another reminder that Melbourne really is a lovely city to live in…
But now, with speeds well into triple figures, there is no golf course, no boats, no water, just concrete barriers lining both sides of the track.
“Hold to the right,” my instructor says. “Come closer to the apex to get the best exit from the corner.” He’s right of course, but that wall seems very close already. Patches of grass are visible under the concrete – don’t touch those I say to myself.
Back on the brakes again, into Turn Nine and 10 – normally a carpark I used to play roller hockey in – and power again onto the sweeper around the water.
We back off here, allowing the car to slow and carefully approach the turns outside the golf club where even more Mercedes personnel flock over the cars and drivers, making sure the event runs like clockwork.
A flag is waved as we pass Powerhouse, and it’s on again.
I find my confidence and lines improving, the 507 a willing participant to everything we do. My instructor offering constant guidance and feedback and tips on racecraft.
At the end of the fourth loop, I don’t recognize the landmarks as I have come to know them. I see the circuit and the circuit alone.
We pull back into the pits, the C63 ticking away, its job done – until the next lucky soul gets to slip behind the wheel.
At 12.37pm precisely, all cars have to clear the track, any evidence of the Mercedes show being there removed (excepting the stunning C63 Estate and AMG GT-S course cars which will go on to support the entire Grand Prix event).
This was an experience I will remember forever – a bucket-list box ticked.
Mercedes-Benz offer the AMG Drive Experience at the Formula One Grand Prix on a first-come, first-served basis to AMG owners and club members and places sell out faster than a Taylor Swift concert.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser, Cameron Murray and James Ward
The author was a guest of Mercedes-Benz.