It’s mid March in Melbourne and once again the sporting world will turn it’s attention to what now must seem like the only Australian city equipped with television cameras.
It’s over 26 years ago that those very cameras forced the worlds motor racing community to focus their attention on a city they did not know existed, to track that hadn’t three weeks earlier. Like a duck to water or Andrea DeCesaris to a wall, the impact of Formula 1 on the city of Adelaide was perfect and inevitable. In the city of churches, used more for funerals than baptismals, the promotional posters said it all, ‘Adelaide Alive!’. They weren’t wrong, Adelaide had come alive. The sleepy city of 1 million, had awoken to the sound of the most advanced motor racing cars on the planet, piloted by the drivers who, first things first, finished first fast more often than last, or else were first to fly in first back fast. Any way you looked at it, Formula 1 was big news.
If the build-up to the race was big the response and subsequent applause was astounding. In the kind of weather that makes any Brit wish they had been sent to a penal colony, Adelaide would be treated to the kind of race that you don’t fully appreciate until many years later. The scorching heat of November ’85 was surpassed only by the wickedly fast number ‘12’ black Lotus 98T of Brazilian Ayrton Senna, driving in his second season of Formula 1. Senna, a motor racing genius in the making, no doubt aware he had neither the tyres, turbo boost or brakes to last the 82-lap distance, reminded all present at the track that afternoon, why it is that they drive and we watch. Time and again Senna danced a dance over, around, and well beyond the cars capabilities in his relentless pursuit of ‘The Flying Finn’ Keke Rosberg. By race end, Rosberg, reaching for a post race fag like a satisfied customer, said the race had been “bloody tough out there but worth it”.
It was worth it for all, including Bernard Ecclestone, the controller of the Brabham F1 team and just about everything else in Formula 1. Not one to lavish praise, Bernie commended South Australian premier John Bannon, stating that Adelaide ‘What Adelaide has done is very bad for Grand Prix racing! They have set a standard some of the established circuits in Europe cannot reach”.
Flash forward to this week and on the eve of the 28th Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix, Ecclestone’s mood appears to have changed. In interviews leading up to this weekends race, Ecclestone called into question the future of the Australian event beyond the completion of it’s current contract in 2015. The reason? The unfortunate, but eternal presence of a time zone, ensuring that 5pm in Melbourne is 6am on the same day in London and unsuitable for maximising television ratings. At first glance it would appear that the operators of Formula 1 have placed the interests of the TV audience ahead of the interests of those present at the circuit. Or, to put it another way, those who watch commercials rather than those exposed to them. The simple fact is that Ecclestone is appealing to an audience that while interested in Formula 1, could not be bothered to watch a race at 6am on a Sunday morning and choose sleep over speed. It is for this audience that Mr Ecclestone feels it appropriate to jeopardise the future existence of Formula 1 in Australia, one of the most loyal and devoted markets to the sport outside of the United Kingdom.This despite a majority of Formula 1 races airing later than 10:30pm on Sunday night and for a long time i the absence of any Australian drivers.
It is verging on comical for a sport that has attained a large portion of it’s enormous popularity from its status as a genuine world championship, to use the very physicality of the world itself, to leverage against the viability of a race’s future. I use the term ‘leverage’ in reference to the future negotiations concerning the races existence beyond 2015 and the inevitable hosting fee to be paid by the Victorian Government, for years a major point of conjecture within the Victorian community. By generating discussion that the event is in some way a burden to the F1 schedule, Ecclestone could seek a higher annual fee to be paid, which at present is reportedly in the region of $55 million dollars a year. But there is one alternative to this perceived problem according to Ecclestone, and that is to host the race at night. According to Ecclestone, if the event were to be held at night, there would be no problem in Australia hosting the event for as long as it wanted, and in Ecclestone’s words, “maybe we could help subsidise that a little bit”, never before has a promise contained the words “maybe” and “could” and when it allegedly does it’s usually bullshit. However, this perceived olive branch has all the makings of being a golden chalice for both the event and Formula 1 in general.
An enormous part of the appeal of Formula 1 is the varying locations and tracks where events take place. These locations serve to give an event its distinctive character, whether it is the forests of Belgium, the harbour in Monaco, the city of Montreal in Canada, the pollution of China, the traffic in India, or the civil unrest in Bahrain, they expose the series to varying different areas of the world. In Australia, the attraction is the weather, the sun, the beaches, the palm-tree lined Albert Park Lake, and the grassy spectator hills filled with a multitude of nationalities that only a multi-cultural society can create. The very thing that makes the Australian Grand Prix so unique would be lost in the face of Ecclestone’s endless pursuit of profit.
Equally, from an image perspective, it would look highly wasteful on the part of Formula 1 to resort to the use of electricity purely for the purposes of having higher TV audiences in Europe. For a sport that has spent an enormous amount of money on the implementation of energy recovery systems in the cars to make the sport appear relevant to global issues, forcing a night race in Australia would make a mockery of such attempts.
The viability of a night race has been assisted by the success of the Singapore Grand Prix, however it would be a terrible mistake to think that this could be transferred to a race at Albert Park. Firstly, it must be remembered that the Singapore circuit is fairly well lit due to the proximity of the city. In Melbourne, lighting would have to exist away from the track to ensure the safety of spectators and thus insuring additional cost, construction, and destruction of the parkland area together with the additional usage of electricity. Further, Formula 1 is lucky to be hosting an event at Albert Park to begin with, let alone being allowed to host the event at night. The parkland area is home to over 100 bird, mammal, and reptile species, all of which would be greatly impacted by the installation of lighting equipment for the race. On news of the night race being suggested, Ron Walker, chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) stated categorically that the race would never be run at night because it did not appeal to the large family patrons that attended the Grand Prix. In contrast to Singapore, a lot of the ticket sales are for general admission patrons who are encouraged to take vantage points on the grass hills surrounding the venue. Were the race to be held at night, the grass would be totally inappropriate to sit on, discouraging the attendance of spectators. Finally, there are residential areas in close proximity to the race track whose disapproval would only further cripple the support for the Grand Prix and encourage a state opposition party to campaign against the races funding.
So with the proposal of a night race almost certainly out of the question what future is there for Formula 1 in Australia? The simple fact is that Australia is good for Formula 1. In a location that could simply sell itself, the organisers are more than aware than in a sports-crazed city like Melbourne, this is simply not enough to ensure ticket sales. Ever since the Australian Grand Prix commenced in Adelaide back in 1985 there remains one key trait that sets it apart from any other race on the F1 calendar and that is that at every moment there is an event on track. I have had the great fortune to see races in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Valencia, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Canada and none of them were able to offer the diversty of on-track entertainment shown in Melbourne. As an example, at this years Austrlalian Grand Prix there is the Australian Formula Ford Series, Porsche Carrera Cup and V8 Supercars. In addition, there are two historic parades, the red bull race off, the speed comparison demonstration, classic supercar racing and within the circuit precinct, there is a Crusty Demons competition following the completion of the race on Sunday. To compare it with another street circuit, the European Grnad Prix in Valencia had Formula BMW, Porsche Supercup and GP2, all quality series but that was it, and while Formula BMW and GP2 had two races, there was only one Porsche Supercup race. Put simply, nothing has changed since 1985, the Australian Grand Prix continues to showcase Formula 1 in the best possible light and this does not go unnoticed by experts and professionals. Iconic former race commentator Murray Walker maintains that the Australian Grand Prix is without question the best race on the Formula 1 calendar.
In an interview with Sky Sports less than a week ago Bernie Ecclestone disagreed with the notion that the Australian Grand Prix was the most unviable round of the world championship and stressed that for the money Melbourne were paying, they were getting a great return. So while Australia ticks all the boxes when hosting a Formula 1 race, and forms a major geographical landmark in the world, those on the board of the AGPC can’t get too confident, after all, there still remains no French Grand Prix.