Formula One - On and Off Track week 12

Formula One - On and Off Track week 12

By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • The future of the Australian GP
  • Hamilton plans to stay out of trouble
  • Button had a go at Bathurst
  • Photo mosaic for Robert Kubica

The future of the Australian Grand Prix

While the Formula One fans in Australia are all set for the season kick-off in Melbourne, Australia, the politicians and officials are quarreling about the future of the Australian Grand Prix. The organizers of the race have reported huge financial losses over the last five years, which are currently compensated by local authorities and the state of Victoria. The problems the organizers face are a classic example of what is going on in contemporary Grand Prix racing.

Australian GP still in doubt?
Australian GP still in doubt?

Photo by: Brousseau Photo

The race fees have become so high that ticket revenues alone are not sufficient to cover the costs, the state and the local authorities don’t want to lose the Grand Prix because they think it’s an important event that stimulates the local economy, and cover the losses with what is ultimately tax payer’s money.

Local Australian politicians are now questioning whether the race is indeed of great value for the economy, although some 300,000 spectators attended the 2010 Australian Grand Prix, the organizers last year reported a loss of $49.5 million. Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has recently said the contract with the FOM (Formula One Management) which expires after 2015, should not be renewed, as he fears the losses will be even higher in 2015.

Recently Member of Parliament Michael Danby has suggested the Australian Grand Prix should be dumped altogether. “The Grand Prix may have been a good deal in 1996, when it cost the government only $1.7 million; but, with falling crowd numbers and taxpayers footing a $50 million-a-year bill, the government should cut its losses and walk away,” he said.

Other politicians have been milder in their comments, Louise Asher, Victoria's minister for major events and tourism told Reuters: “We've inherited a contract that Labor's signed up to, and I just have to deal with it, so my opinion of what might be an acceptable loss is irrelevant because the event is contracted until 2015, so what we're trying to do is manage what we've inherited.”

We’d hate to think we were going to lose Australia

Bernie Ecclestone

FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone has joined the discussion in his own usual way, and immediately challenged the Australian authorities and told them he would be more than happy to cancel the Australian venue as of next year. “Australia are saying they don't want a race. If they want to go, they can go and the next one [to go] is maybe one of the races in Spain,” the 80-year old Ecclestone said this week.

Ecclestone wouldn’t be Ecclestone when he two days later made a complete U-turn and remarked ‘we’d hate to think we were going to lose Australia’. Both the organizers of the venue and the local politicians have indicated the costs must be significantly reduced if the venue is to stay in Melbourne. Unfortunately, even the number of fans who attended the race last year, is not a guarantee the venue will continue beyond 2015, and 300,000 spectators is about as good as gets, only Silverstone attracted a similar number of spectators last year.

Melbourne Flinders Station
Melbourne Flinders Station

Photo by: Brousseau Photo

Australia will have to find the money to support the race, instead of relying on the tax payers’ money they could try to attract major Australian companies to sponsor the event, or try to convince Ecclestone and Co that one way or another race fees have to be decreased significantly. The latter seems very unlikely to happen, and as we have seen in Bahrain, plenty of money is no guarantee for a trouble free race.

And besides the ethical point of view, the money from the rich Middle-Eastern countries will one day dry up, and ‘poor’ Ecclestone will have to find another country to host a race. For him it is just a matter of demand and supply, if Australia is not able to pay the high race fees, he will simply go to another country where authorities and organizers are willing to pay over $30 million for three days of Formula One racing, even if only 50,000 spectators turn up to watch the race as is the case in Turkey and China.

Australia is one of the non-Hermann Tilke designed circuits with a long and rich race tradition, and has always provided plenty of action, the loss of the Australian Grand Prix would indeed be a great loss for the sport and for the Australian race fans as well.

Meanwhile news has emerged that Ecclestone will not attend the Australian Grand Prix this weekend, and instead will travel to New York to meet Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ‘invited Ecclestone to the US to hear his pitch for a race on Staten Island’. Apparently Mr. Bloomberg invited the FOM boss after he had heard about the Melbourne qualms …

Hamilton plans to stay out of trouble in Melbourne

‘Bad boy’ Lewis Hamilton has promised he will ‘steer’ clear of any trouble in Australia this weekend. Hamilton won the event in 2008, but finished fourth in 2009 after an incident with Jarno Trulli. At least that’s what he thought, but after an inquiry by the FIA stewards Hamilton was caught red-handed and had to admit he had previously deliberately misled the stewards about what had happened with Trulli.

No more trouble for Hamilton in Melbourne
No more trouble for Hamilton in Melbourne

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He had told reporters he had waved Trulli past during a safety car intervention after Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica had taken each other out of the race, but told the stewards he did not wave Trulli past, they initially believed him. A smart journalist reported the discrepancy of Hamilton’s statements to the FIA stewards and after a second inquiry they subsequently disqualified him from the race.

In 2010 Hamilton failed to qualify in the top-ten, during the race he collided with local hero Mark Webber and finished sixth. But the Friday night before the race became very embarrassing to say the least for the 26-year old McLaren driver, as he ended up on the back seat of a police car on his way to the local police headquarters after he was caught ‘hooning’ -- dangerous or reckless driving -- downtown Melbourne. He was fined $500 and his Mercedes was impounded by the police.

I go back with a plan not to be in the steward’s office and not to meet the police

Lewis Hamilton

“This year should be a little more dull for you guys [reporters] hopefully,” he told Reuters this week. And added, “Outside of the track I won't be doing any driving, I'll be keeping to myself in the hotel.” When asked whether he would stick to his promise and really would not be driving a road car in Melbourne he replied: “Generally I always drive to and from the track, but probably on race day I might not.”

To the UK Mirror Hamilton said: “I go back with a plan not to be in the steward’s office and not to meet the police. I don’t go back having any regrets. I go back having had a couple of interesting experiences that will hopefully help me steer clear of any other incidents in the future I feel really positive. I love going there, it is a great trip.”

But Hamilton was again on thin ice when he on Tuesday ahead of the Australian Grand Prix stated ‘Red Bull is just a drinks company’, and it is quite possible reporters will remind him of his words when that four-wheeled by Adrian Newey designed fizzy drinks can zooms past his McLaren on Sunday and he sees the words ‘… gives you wings’ on the back of the rear wing.

Button had a go at Bathurst

The start of the season is always a good time for some promotional activities, many drivers attend all kind of meetings with sponsors and fans, but this year McLaren driver Jenson Button had probably the best promotional activity of all: he drove his McLaren Formula One car around the legendary Australian Bathurst circuit.

Button was the first to drive a Formula One car around the Mount Panorama circuit as its official name is, a circuit that became famous for its annual Bathurst 1000 touring car event. The track is located in Bathurst, New South-Wales, and is 6.312 meters long, and part of the circuit consists of public roads. The circuit has a height difference of 174 meters with steep climbs and descends, which makes it a difficult and also treacherous circuit.

Button lapped Bathurst in McLaren F1 car
Button lapped Bathurst in McLaren F1 car

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The Briton made history yesterday when he shattered the track record behind the wheel of a McLaren MP4-23. “These guys are crazy -- they really are. This place is fantastic. Television just doesn’t do it justice. When I drove around earlier in a Mercedes road car it even felt fast,” the 2009 Formula One champion said. And added, “This is an iconic race track and it’s great to celebrate the unofficial fastest lap in a F1 car. That was phenomenal. It was such a rush. Once you get over the straights being quite hard to control the car over it is such a pleasure. It’s just a pity I don’t have more laps to test it out.”

After lapping the circuit in his McLaren, Button was also looking forward to drive an Australian V8 Supercar at Bathurst. “I think I’m going to have more fun in the V8 car than the F1 because you can actually use all the kerbs and get a good flow. I’m really excited about the challenge. It’s the second time I’ll be driving a V8 and I’ve got so many good memories of watching the V8s on TV and hopefully one day I get to drive one for real and it not just be four laps,” the enthusiastic Button said.

These guys are crazy -- they really are!

Jenson Button

V8 Supercar legend Craig Lowndes also drove the MP4-23, for him it was the first time he drove a Formula One car. “Imagining driving a Formula One car around Bathurst initially seemed a bit crazy. But it’s here and we’re going to enjoy it for what it is. It will be a hell of an experience. I never thought in my lifetime we’d see this," Lowndes said. He was impressed by the acceleration of a modern Formula One car, “When I first went out it was the acceleration but when you go through turn two you really realize how much acceleration you have. In comparison the V8 seems to labor up the mountain.”

Photo mosaic for Robert Kubica

Let’s not forget the man who wanted to be at the start of the Australian Grand Prix: Renault driver Robert Kubica. Six weeks ago a terrible rally accident shattered his hopes for the 2011 season. Kubica is still in the Santa Corona hospital in Italy where he is recovering from his injuries. After four operations the 26-year old Pole is now ready for his revalidation, and he will have to work hard to regain the strength and functions of his badly damaged right arm and hand.

Although the reports about his progress are positive, it has now also sunk in it will take a long time before Kubica will be able to join his Renault team again. His fans in Poland have come up with a original idea to support their favorite and cheer him up: the 'Mozaika dla Roberta'.

The aim of the initiative is to create a mosaic-like portrait of Kubica. His supporters can upload a photo to a website, and it is expected some 10,000 photos will be pieced together to create a giant collage which will be presented to the injured Pole. Mosaic posters with the text ‘Robert we are with you’ will also be printed, and if the action is successful, without a doubt many of those posters will be seen on the grandstands of the Melbourne Albert Park circuit.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 11

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About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli , Jenson Button , Mark Webber , Lewis Hamilton , Craig Lowndes , Robert Kubica , Sebastian Vettel , Bernie Ecclestone , Adrian Newey , Robert Doyle
Tags australian gp, bathurst, ecclestone, jenson button, lewis hamilton, mclaren, micheal bloomberg, robert kubica