Ferrari has won more Australian Grands Prix than any other team. Michael Schumacher scored a hattrick of wins at the dawn of the 21st century, and Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel – as well as last year’s winner Charles Leclerc – have all stood on the top step of the podium, spraying their victory bubbly (disappointingly, French not Australian.)
The Australian GP came relatively late to the Formula One World Championship calendar: the first championship race was held in Adelaide in 1985. Yet Ferrari’s first Aussie GP triumph was way back in 1957, and Australia – even though it’s geographically about as far from Italy as possible – was home to one of Ferrari’s first non-European importers.
Two racing drivers independently introduced Ferrari Down Under. Most significant was Bill Lowe, importer of the first Ferrari into Australia in 1952. Lowe was a successful amateur driver who finished third in the Australian GP in 1929. An avid motoring enthusiast, he was captivated by the elegant Ferrari sports cars beginning to make their reputations on Europe racing circuits in the early ‘50s. He tried to buy one. Enzo Ferrari was reluctant: Australia, after all, had no Ferrari agent.
Lowe, owner of a successful electrical company, suggested he could become the importer. A deal was done and, in 1952, the first Ferrari to head to Australia was shipped: a 212 Inter berlinetta. Lowe used it for hillclimbing before putting it up for sale. WH Lowe and Co remained the official Australian importer until 1974.
The other great figure in Ferrari’s Australian history was English F1 racing driver Peter Whitehead. The Yorkshireman won the Australian GP in 1938 driving an ERA on the legendary Mount Panorama circuit in Bathurst, now host to one of the world’s most famous touring car races. He was also the first person to whom Enzo Ferrari sold a Formula One car – a 125 in 1949. Painted British racing green, it won that year’s Czech GP and finished third in the French GP.
In 1954, it also became the first F1 Ferrari to race in Australia and New Zealand: wins included NZ’s Lady Wigram Trophy. The following year, Whitehead persuaded Enzo Ferrari to supply himself and Australian Tony Gaze – like Whitehead, a former World War 2 fighter pilot – with a pair of 625 F1 cars, for a series of Australasian races.
Whitehead raced regularly Down Under in Ferraris until 1957, finishing on the podium of the Australian and New Zealand GPs. (He was killed in a sports car race in France in September 1958, aged 43.)
To scores of local racing drivers, Whitehead demonstrated first-hand Ferrari’s considerable racing prowess. Some of the best Australian drivers subsequently imported Prancing Horse racing cars.
Local hero Lex Davison, after whom the F1 Australian GP winner’s trophy is named, won the 1957 Australian Driver’s Championship in the ex-Tony Gaze 625 F1. The same year he gave Ferrari its first Australian GP win, repeating the feat in 1958.
Twenty years before the Australian GP reached World Championship status, Australasia got its own F1 series. The Tasman Series, named after the sea that separates the two countries, was held in Australia and New Zealand over the European off-season: high summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
In the ‘60s it became a favourite with European F1 teams and drivers, keen to escape northern winters. Cars were typically the previous year’s F1 machinery, but with a 2.5-litre engine capacity limit.
Ferrari entered the Tasman Series for the first time in 1968. F1 team leader Chris Amon, a Kiwi, won his home GP and finished second in the championship to twice World Champion Jim Clark. In 1969, Amon went one better. He convincingly won the series, and four of the seven races – including the Australian and New Zealand GPs.
In the ‘70s, the Tasman Series lost its allure for F1 teams, and the Australian GP reverted to a race primarily for local drivers, driving for local teams. F1 cars were replaced by 5.0-litre V8 Formula 5000 cars.
Then, in 1985, the first F1 World Championship Australian GP was held, Ferrari winning in 1987 with Gerhard Berger. Ferrari has also won three of the last four Aussie GPs, a record that Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are hoping to enrich in Melbourne on April 2.