x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Australian Grand Prix gets stop-start backing

After threatening a boycott a few weeks ago, Melbourne's mayor does a flip-flop as fans want grand prix to remain at Albert Park.

Most Australian race enthusiasts seem willing to pay the inflated taxes required to keep the grand prix at its Melbourne home. Clive Mason / Getty Images
Most Australian race enthusiasts seem willing to pay the inflated taxes required to keep the grand prix at its Melbourne home. Clive Mason / Getty Images

Robert Doyle, Melbourne's Lord Mayor, has in the past few weeks changed position more times than a pole-sitter stalled on a grand prix starting grid.

Doyle had previously said he would boycott the Australian Grand Prix. He had said, at A$50 million (Dh188,430m) per year, it was too expensive. He had said "time's up".

Yet earlier this week, outside Melbourne Town Hall, he beamed while unveiling the Grand Prix Grid Girls in their eye-catching outfits and spoke of the excitement Formula One brings to the city. He also confirmed he would attend this weekend's action at Albert Park.

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Doyle stared straight ahead and avoided eye contact with his questioner as he insisted he was not a sell-out and that his "focus is on making [the race] a huge success". He added a discussion should be held "when the time comes, which is when the licence fee is up".

The race contract is up for renewal in 2015 and already Ron Walker, the chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) and a former Lord Mayor of Melbourne, is considering alternative options as he aims to appease Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial head, while also reducing costs.

Ecclestone had indicated a permanent facility might help Australia retain its race, thus Walker is purposefully exploring the possibility of a new custom-built venue near Avalon domestic airport, 50 kilometres south of the city centre.

Doyle, however, said a track at Avalon "would not have the same romance or cachet as Albert Park".

"The grand prix would become one of those events we sometimes see out of Asia," he said. "Empty stands, but a worldwide TV audience of hundreds of millions. To me that wouldn't really be an Australian Grand Prix, just a TV event."

Ecclestone has not travelled to Melbourne this weekend, instead deciding to stay in London, but there are plenty of race enthusiasts here who are competently filling the void.

And, not surprisingly, they are all willing to pay the inflated taxes required for the race to remain at Albert Park.

High-earning tax payers are already set to contribute an additional tax levy in order to provide support to Queensland flood victims. But Steve Rushbrook, an English native who has lived in Melbourne for six years, said an Australian Grand Prix was essential, regardless of the financial commitment required.

"Frankly, I am nuts for the F1," said Rushbrook from the fan park as local rock legends AC/DC blasted out from over the speakers. "I pay taxes and, so long as I pay taxes, I am happy for my money to go towards this. It is worth it. It is a globally important event and the sport deserves an antipodean home."

Louisa Toya and her daughter, Ebony, dressed in matching "Aussie Grit" T-shirts and rooting for Mark Webber, said the expense is to be expected, while Bruce Davey, a New Zealander living in Adelaide who made the trip east for the weekend, highlighted the risk of playing hard ball with Ecclestone.

"It's expensive," said Davey, dressed in a silver McLaren-Mercedes jacket. "But Formula One is probably one of the highest exposure sports events in the world. If we want to have it, that's the way it is. There are countries lining up to host a race, and if you say suddenly you don't want it, well, it's gone, mate."

Away from the circuit, most people in Melbourne remain equally as enthusiastic. Caitlin Sinclair, wrapped up from the cold and heading to work yesterday morning, said A$50m was "worth it to put us on the map".

"Melbourne is the sports capital of Australia, so it's a good thing to have it here," she added. "I think [Doyle] was giving his own opinion rather than thinking about the greater good of Melbourne because people here clearly enjoy it."

Not everybody was sold on the four-day motorsports festival, however. As Walker spoke alongside Doyle on Tuesday outside the town hall, a woman was ushered away after accusing the AGPC chairman of squandering tax payers' money. "You can find money for a car race for 15 years, but you can't find money for a cancer hospital," she shouted in reference to Walker's involvement in bringing the grand prix to Melbourne from Adelaide in 1996.

Neville Bertalli, who was yesterday watching his grandson compete in a school cricket match, agreed that it was time for Formula One to drive off into the sunset.

"I am a motor car dealer, so you think I would be keen on the grand prix, but I'm not," he said. "It is time it went to some other city. It's past its use-by date and that money could be spent better elsewhere. It's an optional expenditure, it costs too much money to subsidise and we don't need it anymore."

Asked if he would be willing to see the race remain in Melbourne were Walker to renegotiate the licence fee, Bertalli replied: "Mr Ecclestone from London does not understand the term 'renegotiate'. It's not in his vocabulary."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae