Threat hangs over future of Australian GP

The clock is ticking on next week's season-opening Formula One Grand Prix, which will be run against the backdrop of a threat to its very future.

updated: March 09, 2008 08:01 IST
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The clock is ticking on next week's season-opening Formula One Grand Prix, which will be run against the backdrop of a threat to its very future.

The Melbourne race has been one of the most popular with drivers and fans on the circuit since its move from Adelaide in 1996, but pressures are mounting on organizers to agree to stage the race at night around Albert Park.

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is threatening to take the event offshore, with India and Russia mentioned as destinations, if they do not comply.

His rhetoric comes over local organizers and the Victorian state government's reluctance to add further to their debts with the installation of lighting to enable the race to be held under the stars to suit European television audiences.

The Melbourne race, under contract until 2010, is financially hemorrhaging with Victoria losing almost 35 million dollars (33 million US) of taxpayers' money in 2007.

It is budgeting for a blowout of more than 40 million dollars (37.5 million US) this year. All up, the Melbourne GP has lost more than 120 million dollars (113 million US) since its inception.

Ecclestone is playing hard-ball and says there are better prospects of chasing more money, sponsorship and television audiences if the event was held in India, Russia or South Korea.

"Maybe we don't want to be in Australia," Ecclestone told a local newspaper last month. "Our costs are very high in Australia and we get a lot less money. It's bloody bad for us."

He claimed car manufacturers and sponsors support a move and said Melbourne's only chance to keep the race was if it was held at night.

The billionaire wants Australia to fall into line with Singapore, which will stage the first-ever Formula One night race on September 28 on a circuit of public roads around the city-state's Marina Bay area.

Reports say Melbourne is looking at a licence fee of more than 40 million dollars (37.5 million US) to continue with the race beyond 2010.

But if the city is to retain its place on the Grand Prix circuit, Ecclestone reportedly said terms would be non-negotiable.

"... we would have to have a night race," he said. "That would be the only option."

Australian Grand Prix Corporation chairman Ron Walker is adament that this will not happen amid the mounting financial losses.

Victorian Premier John Brumby has already cast doubt on the future of the race, saying taxpayers were his prime concern.

"If the Victorian government can't negotiate an economical settlement of this (new) contract, then there won't be a race," Walker said last month.

"When it comes to paying too much money for an event the Victorian government just won't wear it.

"Everybody would like to keep the F1 race, but if it's not viable, it's not viable, and the government has to be responsible to its constituents. There will not be a night race."

Walker said his corporation has already compromised with F1's world governing body by pushing back the starting time of this month's race 90 minutes.

"(But) to spend 60 million dollars on lighting in Albert Park is just not on. If it's all about money, then clearly Melbourne will lose the race," he said.

"There comes a time when you can't afford to pay these huge amounts of money for these events."

Walker said the possibility of a night race has been discussed with Ecclestone "a number of times and he knows we will not be doing a night race."

If Melbourne is to keep the race beyond 2010 it is obvious someone will have to drastically change their thinking.