The row over the future of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne has taken the latest in a series of twists-and-turns, with the Victoria government stressing that it is 'committed' to the race – just as F1 commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone suggested that 'we don't need Australia' on the calendar.
The most recent debate in what is a long-running saga was prompted by a newspaper article last week in which Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle controversially claimed that both the city and the state of Victoria would be better off without the grand prix, an annual fixture since moving from Adelaide in 1996.
He reasoned that mounting losses of late meant the charge to taxpayers had become unsustainable, and Victoria Premier Ted Baillieu agreed that unless costs are brought beneath the $50 million AUD mark, then once the current deal expires in four years' time, the event may have to go [see separate story – click here
Ecclestone – whose Formula One Management (FOM) company handles all dealings relating to race fees and contracts – offered Cllr. Doyle's argument short shrift, insisting that 'we have always been happy because I've always thought we had big, big support in Melbourne and there's no reason why we should leave' – but in a game of political hardball, it seems the ever-outspoken British billionaire might now have changed his mind.
“Twenty races is enough,” he told German media, alluding to the F1 2011 schedule, the longest in the sport's six-decade history. “If we have some new races, some others will fall out – we don't need Australia, for instance...”
Perhaps in response to Ecclestone's threat, Victoria Tourism Minister Louise Asher has pointed out the economic benefits and global prestige brought to Melbourne by the grand prix, pledging the government's ongoing backing for the race and promising greater public transparency regarding just how much the weekend costs, with expenditure for the 2011 edition to be revealed after the event.
“There is no point in me doing this game of will it be greater, will it be less, what might it be?” she told the Australian Associated Press
. “We are having a discussion with the Grand Prix Corporation about costs, and when the event is run, and when the annual report is tabled in the Victorian parliament, you will know whether we have been successful or not.
“The government has supported the grand prix because it is a significant international event which provides branding and tourism value for Victoria. In terms of the Baillieu government, we are committed to the grand prix.”
With this year's race set to be held from 24-27 March – the second stop on the calendar after the Bahrain curtain-raiser – Grand Prix Corporation chairman Ron Walker is still endeavouring to reduce the cost. He affirmed, however, that ticket sales are presently 35 per cent higher than at the same stage twelve months ago, and that should Ecclestone wish to discuss the future of the race, then he needs to speak to the organ grinder, not the monkey.
“I think he had a misunderstanding as to the role Mr. Doyle was playing, because he hasn't met Mr. Baillieu yet,” Walker underlined. “He (Ecclestone) has been associated with four premiers since we have had the race; he was a bit confused as to where the purse strings lay, but he certainly understands that now.”