Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Does Albert Park have a chequered future? // Analysing the economic and government issues facing the Melbourne race

Published by Adam Burn

Australian Formula 1 fans got a shock over the weekend...

In a Sunday newspaper article, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne made some rather out of the blue comments regarding the future of the Australian Grand Prix in his city.

Robert Doyle clearly outlined four possible options for the future:

  1. Bernie Ecclestone will take the race and give it to an Asian or Middle Eastern country because they will give him what he wants, a night race
  2. Move the GP to a purpose built facility in Australia able to hold night races
  3. Effectively the status quo, with upgrades to facilities and continuation of the twilight start time

His 4th option was what drew the attention:

It is the old argument: pay up front but get many times the value of the upfront payment in downstream economic benefits.

- Robert Doyle

For most events that formula is persuasive. But $70 million?

The fourth and final possibility must be faced. I know of no city that has voluntarily walked away from a Grand Prix, but could Melbourne be the first?

The final possibility is that we decide that it has been 20 fantastic years, the benefits to the city and the state have been enormous, but the cycle has run its course.

It would mean we would need to replace the Grand Prix and major events don't come cheap. Nor, indeed, are there many out there that can be repeated year after year and drive the economic returns we get from the Grand Prix. We should start looking now.

Leading sporting columnist Rebecca Wilson also thinks it's time for the Grand Prix to say goodbye to Melbourne:

Doyle says no other city has ever voluntarily walked away from an F1 event. In fact, cities such as Singapore and Dubai throw millions at Ecclestone for the right to host the race. They don't mind that few locals turn out to actually watch it. For these rich cities, it is all about the ego trip and the television audience.

Melbourne does not need its pristine 300ha park on the edge of the city to withstand any more changes. Albert Park is precious. The city is lucky more damage has not been done by the construction of stands and barriers in the past two decades.

Melbourne most certainly does not need to build a new venue for the sake of a single car race. That would be Ecclestone folly at its worst.

There is no doubt that some Australian sporting journalists don't understand Formula 1 - so they prefer to either ignore it or tear it down out of ignorance. They don't understand just how big Formula 1 is.

Casting a shadow over Formula 1 in Australia.
Casting a shadow over Formula 1 in Australia.Credit: Mercedes GP

Rebecca Wilson says few locals turn out to watch races in Singapore and Dubai - I was at the Singapore Grand Prix last year and the crowds could not be questioned. She forgets that not everybody who lives in Singapore is of Asian descent, that it is a global financial capital. Where I sat in the Marina grandstand, I was surrounded by German fans, Russians, Chinese, thousands of Aussies and probably numerous other nationalities. Who really cares where the crowd comes from, as long as they get one!

If she had spoken about Turkey, China and probably Bahrain as well, she would've had a point. But this is where the ignorance and lack of factual information comes in.

She mentions Dubai - we Formula 1 fans can politely inform her that the race is known as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for a reason...

Many of the same journalists continually bagged Mark Webber's performance until he started winning races (without realising that he was outperforming his cars and teammates), only to quickly jump on the bandwagon. It was good to see the sport finally getting some positive coverage - too often in the past, F1 only made the TV news when there was a big crash to show.

But anyhow, I digress...

I previously said that Robert Doyle's comments were out of the blue. But let's look at the political situation behind what's going on.

Robert Doyle was formerly Victoria's Liberal opposition leader and in November, his party re-gained government after 11 years of Labor rule. So did he wait until a more favourable ear would listen to what he wanted to say?

But the more interesting piece of timing is that the new contract for 2011-2015 was only signed on January 17. That's quite amazing in itself, that the race was only two months away and yet no contract existed for it. But I can imagine the Lord Mayor would've been informed that the contract had been signed, as it is the city's biggest international event.

The chairman of the GP, Ron Walker, today replied to Doyle's suggestions:

This is an annual debate now and it's a sad thing for the mayor of a major capital city to come out as publicly against a major event like the grand prix"

"It's still the largest sporting event on a single day basis in Australia. It's larger than the grand final, it's larger than the Melbourne Cup, it's larger than the tennis and it gets a huge overseas audience.

"I'm saying it's great value because it propels Melbourne's image abroad in a way that you can't buy.

The 2011 race will no doubt be fully scrutinized by the new Victorian Liberal Government. Some taxpayers are already wondering what benefit the race is to their state, especially considering they underwrote it to the tune of $50 million last year.

Interestingly, a meeting was called today between Grand Prix officials and the Government with the purpose of reviewing the costs that are spent to host the race. Whether or not this was prompted by Doyle's comments is uncertain, however the timing is more than coincidental.

What do I think is the future of Albert Park? Reading the tea leaves, the Government will make a decision based on the performance over the next four years. I can't say what that performance will be, but if it doesn't improve then I think 2015 will be the last race at Albert Park.

Would the race stay in Australia if that happened? Yes. And my tip is that New South Wales will be the winner. After seeing Victoria beat them to so many major events, taking the race off Victoria would please NSW no end. My guess is they will offer a night race around the Sydney Olympic precinct on a similar circuit to what the V8 Supercars run on.

It would please Mr Ecclestone's desire for a night race and add another international city to the calendar. Transport and infrastructure in the area is excellent - who wouldn't want to go to F1 Rocks at the Olympic Stadium? Sydney could cope with the demand much better having more hotel rooms and a bigger airport.

Sydney is crying out for another massive global event, but the beauty of F1 is we get all those benefits on a yearly basis.

If however we lost the Grand Prix, who knows if we'd ever get it back? Let's start thinking in the national interest here and doing what we can to make the race more economically viable.

Melbourne or Sydney - I'm not fussed. I just want the race to stay here in the long term. We've had it since 1982 and I don't want to give it up!