An insightful look at the plethora of issues surrounding the Australian GP, which leads one to ask, why do we bother?
Formula One chooses its race venues for a host of reasons. In some cases, we are lured to pastures new by the siren call of money. In others, such as the United States, we push to establish ourselves in valuable consumer markets.
And in other cases, we appear to base our calendar decisions on little more than the force of habit.
The Australian Grand Prix is a perfect example. Since the race moved from Adelaide to Melbourne it can no longer claim any form of historic status, and even the Adelaide incarnation would have struggled to position itself as a legacy race when compared with the likes of Spa, Monza, Silverstone, and Monaco. Not that legacy is any guarantee of protection, as the loss of the French Grand Prix proved in 2009.
The problem with Melbourne
The race in Melbourne is a troublesome one. However popular the grand prix is with members of the F1 circus and fans around the world, it is not well-loved in the state of Victoria. Formula One’s arrival into town coincides with endless op-eds in the local newspapers bemoaning everything from the sport’s effect on traffic in and around Albert Park to the cost to the taxpayer of hosting the race.
Now that F1 has put Melbourne on the map, they argue, there is no need to keep paying through the eyeballs for global exposure when everything from the Australian Open to the Melbourne Cup boosts the city’s profile for considerably less money.
In addition to the negative publicity that dogs the duration of our stay in Albert Park, finding a good time to stage the race is not easy. A night race would be great for European TV audiences, but given that the track is in the heart of a residential neighbourhood everything from the lights to the noise would be subject to complaint from local residents who already moan tirelessly about the inconvenience of having Formula One as a temporary neighbour.
As a compromise, we have a late afternoon start time that makes Melbourne more palatable viewing for the sport’s core audience in Europe, but which leaves us vulnerable to the falling twilight in the event of red flags and Safety Cars.
Then there is the logistical challenge, made all the more obvious by this year’s decision to position Australia as a standalone. Geographically distant from almost everywhere, Australia is the longest of the long haul flights, making getting replacement parts trackside a two-day job. The impact of jet lag is such that F1 personnel leave early for the race, ramping up the cost of hotel bills for teams and media alike. Sea freight must be organised in December and despatched while the cars are still doing their exploratory laps of Jerez in winter testing.
Then there is the market itself. Australia is a country well-versed in motorsport, with a passionate and knowledgeable fanbase. Drivers love to race in front of the packed grandstands, and the buzz in Albert Park is on a par with that found in places like Silverstone and Montreal. On that front, there are no complaints (although Adelaide was said to be even buzzier).
The Australian market
But the Australian car market is dead in the water, and by the end of 2017 there will no longer be an automotive manufacturing industry in the country. Ford stop production in 2016, and homegrown heroes Holden will cease building cars in Australia in 2017, with both companies pointing to the high costs of labour and materials making sustained involvement untenable.
In any case, those automotive brands represented in Formula One have never seen Australia as a core market, with local sales linked to local brands represented in the V8 Supercar Championship.
It is a similar story where F1’s sponsors are concerned. Australia - like Europe - is a mature market home to a combination of homegrown and international brands. Brand loyalty has long since been established, and there is little growth to be found through targeting the Australian market, particularly when the combination of a strong local currency, high import duties, and the punitive cost of round-the-world shipment are taken into account.
Why are we there?
So if much of the local population doesn’t want us, and our brands and sponsors have little to gain from Australian exposure, why does Formula One continue to take that long flight to Melbourne at the start of every season?
It all comes down to personal relationships, particularly F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s close ties with Ron Walker, former chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation. But Walker stepped down from the role in 2014, and it will be interesting to see whether the loss of that personal relationship impacts the race’s continued existence when the F1 contract next comes up for negotiation when the current deal - negotiated in part by Walker - expires in 2020.