Formula 1 drive up for grabs?

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February 19, 2005 Fancy a drive at the Australian Grand Prix next year? BMW has a car waiting for you if you fit the bill. All you need is an international profile and a week spare next March. Each year at the opening Formula One race of the season in Melbourne, BMW puts 26 cars on the grid for the Celebrity Challenge, and each year the line-up puts on a show like no other. In 1986, Dire Straits guitar virtuoso Mark Knopfler hit the concrete retaining wall in this race and the whole world held its breath. Most years at least one celebrity has thrilled the crowd with a spectacular crash after driving beyond their ability and experience.

Each year, one of Australia’s most anticipated motor races is the BMW Celebrity Challenge race held at the Formula One Grand Prix. Household names from around the world get on-track and very serious as they play out their fantasies of what might have been had their existing careers not been quite so stellar.

This year we’ll see another group of celebrities take up the gauntlet showcasing BMW’s new 1 Series. World Boxing champion Kostya Tszyu, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer plus numerous Olympic Gold medalists such as James Tomkins (rowing), Keiran Perkins and Petria Thomas (swimming), Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook (Beach Volleyball) and Steven Bradbury (speed skating) will compete this year along with the sporting face of Australia’s top-rating television channel and President of Collingwood Football Club, Eddie McGuire.

Knopfler’s injuries amounted to a spot of concussion and a broken collarbone and surprisingly remain the most serious injuries to have occurred in the race , though every year someone experiences chequered flag fever, driving beyond their experience and ability thanks to the adrenalin and the roar of the 200,000 crowd.

Last year it was actor Samuel Johnson Pole of the TV series The Secret Life of Us who got carried away. Having secured pole position the day before, he missed the start and in trying to make up positions was involved in a series of incidents throughout the race, ending up in the tyre barriers.

In previous years television personalities Richard Wilkins and Antonio Sabato Junior also drove beyond the limits, almost “taking out” fellow celebrities at high speed.

Most who dare to accept a drive seem in denial of the danger. Normally conservative politicians such as former NZ Prime Minister David Lange, former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, and current Foreign Affairs Minister Downer have all given up a week of their life so they can be part of the Celebrity Challenge. In 1999, the Australian Federal Minister for Sport and Tourism, Jackie Kelly also drove in the event.

Downer’s drive is particularly significant. One of the most powerful men in Australia, Downer is embarking upon a seriously dangerous endeavour. When the Chairman of PBL (owner of Channel 9, the telecaster of the event) James Packer decided to drive in the event a few years ago he was vetoed by the board – it was deemed far too dangerous for someone of such importance to the giant media company. There have been no such protests from Downer’s constituency.

Each year one spot in the event is auctioned - this year the head of a Melbourne-based power tools company paid AUS$100,101.99 for the opportunity to drive in the BMW Celebrity Challenge. The money will go to Oxfam to aid the Tsunami relief effort.

Global Machinery Company CEO Peter Hosking won a fierce bidding contest on website for the drive in one of BMW’s new 1 Series – previous years have seen Minis, and Z3 and 3 series BMWs used, and prior to BMW’s involvement General Motors cars powered the spectacle.

The reason drivers need to give up a week of their life is because the chance-of-a-lifetime drive involves four days of intensive racecraft tuition under Bathurst and Le Mans winner Geoff Brabham. The former American Driver of the Year, four times IMSA Sports Car Champion and son of Formula 1 legend Sir Jack Brabham plays Mr Mom to the celebrities for four days to ensure the spectacle is as safe as possible, given the obvious limitations of testosterone and adrenalin on the day. The four day training culminates on the Thursday before the event when all the celebrities are tested by CAMS (the Confederation of Australian Motorsport) for their competition license. This year all the celebrities have a license and have competed before so Brabham and the CAMS crew will be somewhat less stressed around midday on March 6.

Over the years, celebrities of all genres have competed, from supermodels such as Elle MacPherson and Megan Gale, former marathon champ Robert de Castella, pentathlete Daly Thomson, six time world champion surfer Layne Beachley, rugby legend David Campese, tennis stars Thomas Muster, Alicia Molik and Pat Rafter (Muster met and subsequently married Australian television personality Jo Beth Taylor during practice for the 2000 event) and world champion boxers Anthony Mundine and Tszyu have both competed (Tszyu will compete again this year).

Interestingly, the flamboyant Mundine, who has achieved elite status in two sports (rugby and boxing), drove very conservatively to take out fourth place when many felt he would be a certain winner.

So there you have it – if you’re famous enough, call up BMW and tell them you’d like a drive in the BMW Celebrity Challenge in 2006.

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