The Australian Grand Prix’s future has been in doubt for the best part of the last six months. The existing contract with Melbourne organisers runs out in 2010 and there has been every indication that it will not be renewed.
Formula One Management are keen for a night race and have made it clear this will have to be arranged in order to retain the event on the calendar. Bernie Ecclestone has said “The only way the race could stay in Melbourne, or anywhere else in Australia, is if it is staged during the night so that the public in Europe can watch it.” This is rather portentous as there is no way a nocturnal race would ever be feasible at Albert Park. Not only would it be too expensive but it would be met with huge resistance from local residents. Perhaps the only way to keep Formula One in Melbourne is to run the Grand Prix as late as possible in the afternoon and sweeten Bernie’s pocket with a sack full of Government cash.
Unfortunately such funding does not appear to be forthcoming, which means the days of Grand Prix racing at Albert Park are numbered.
The Australian round might not be lost forever though, as reports emerged last week that Sydney may come to its rescue.
Owners of the Eastern Creek Raceway, 40km west of Sydney, are commissioning a study to look at the possibility of upgrading their facility to meet F1 standards. In doing so they would be able to accommodate a night race and provide the world class facilities that Formula One Management demands.
There are a number of reasons why Eastern Creek would be a suitable place for an F1 Grand Prix. The land is owned by the State Government and it is located in an industrial area, making it easy to develop the area for motorsport. The site is also adjacent to a pair of Freeways meaning traffic access a non-issue.
There are currently two permanent circuits in Sydney but one of them is being closed and turned into suburban housing. This means the amount of business at Eastern Creek will effectively double over the next few years and the circuit owners are keen to expand their facility. Ideally they would like to build two racetracks allowing them to run different events at the same time.
Since the circuit is going to pour millions into a significant upgrade, they have decided it would be a great chance to look at bringing F1 to Sydney. Circuit officials are paying British company Apex Circuit Design $350,000 to evaluate the possibility of a Formula One Grand Prix at the track, so they are obviously very serious about such a move. Small racing circuits don’t throw about that sort of money on a study without serious intent.
However, there are plenty of factors that would prevent a Formula One race from ever taking part at Eastern Creek. Not surprisingly the main one of them is money.
In order to be suitable for Grand Prix racing, Eastern Creek will need to make a mammoth investment. The racetrack is small, the facilities are small, and it is an awful spectator circuit. There is no way in a million years you could think about holding a Grand Prix at the venue as it stands now. The track is barely suitable for A1GP, who are only using the site until a street circuit is built in Sydney’s unused Olympic precinct.
It will be interesting to see how close the Apex Design survey of Eastern Creek is to my own analysis, which is the best way to upgrade the circuit to accommodate Formula One is to bulldoze the whole place and start again.
Local press have reported the circuit is looking to spend between 10 and 30 million dollars upgrading the venue, which simply isn’t enough if they want to host a Formula One race. The Chinese Government spent 450 million dollars building the Shanghai International Circuit, and authorities in Bahrain spent a similar amount at Sakhir. The amount of work required at Eastern Creek would be monumental and is unlikely to fall under the 30 million dollar barrier. The cost of lighting the circuit for night racing alone could be close to ten million dollars.
Another point worth noting is that Western Sydney is going through a crazy property boom at the moment. 1 in 10 Australians now live in the region, so the State Government could make a huge profit by selling the land in a decade for residential or commercial purposes. It might be hard for State officials to justify spending millions of dollars on a Grand Prix when the land is already so valuable to them.
Other than the unrealistic investment required, there is another significant obstacle that renders a Grand Prix in Sydney unlikely.
Melbourne is not losing the Grand Prix. Australia is.
There are currently eighteen F1 races on the calendar, with another five set to join soon. The problem is that teams will only accept twenty rounds per season so three of the existing races have to go. The Australian Grand Prix would be a logical candidate for the cull.
The population in Australia is small and the car market is tiny. This leaves little commercial benefit to the teams and sponsors for coming down under, which is all the more problematic because the travel expenses are the highest of any Grand Prix. The team personnel love it when they arrive in Australia, but the bean counters back at their factories probably don’t.
The event is also less crucial to Formula One than it used to be. The first Australian Grand Prix in 1985 was one of only five races outside of Europe. It’s presence on the F1 calendar gave the series more credibility as a World Championship. Now there are nine races outside of Europe and two of them are in the same region as Australia. Travelling to the Great Southern Land is no longer the novelty for F1 that it used to be.
The Australian Formula One Grand Prix is one of the best organised races of the season, and is one of the most enjoyable for fans, drivers and teams. However, none of that matters as much as the millions of dollars that are tied up with the sport, and that means the race might soon be a thing of the past.
At least the feasibility study into Eastern Creek will be more successful than a similar attempt to lure F1 to New South Wales in the 1960’s.
Mt Panorama in Bathurst is Australia’s answer to the Nurburgring. The ferocious 5km circuit winds up and over a mountain, and the super-long downhill back straight gives touring cars the chance to top 300km. It is without doubt one of the greatest tests of any driver anywhere in the world. Legend has it that forty years ago the local authorities figured it would be great to take F1 cars to the circuit and tried to organise a Tasman Series race there. Officials apparently came to inspect the track and made their findings pretty quickly. They took one look at the trees, the cliff faces, the elevation changes, the blind off camber corners, and deemed it too dangerous for F1.
In an era where drivers raced at circuits without barriers, without helmets, and sat on top of a fuel tank, Mt Panorama was deemed too dangerous.
That fabled survey didn’t cost $350,000, so I hope Eastern Creek Raceway is spending its money wisely.