Hugo Kelly is one of the best writers we know and he’s pulled together an excellent analysis of the whole sorry Grand Prix saga.

Now the circus maximus has left town, leaving behind fond memories, a coroner’s investigation and a ravaged public park with that glazed, just-loved look, it’s suddenly all a little humdrum in Melbourne again.

The formula one boys are gone, and we’re all in denial. Not even the prospect of a mild recession just in time for the footy season can cheer us up.

Melbourne’s Mr Congeniality, Ron Walker, expressed it best immediately after Sunday’s big race, in a concise cost-benefit analysis of the grand prix: “On a day when 128,500 attended this track, and 380,000 over four days, it is with great regret that we announce the death of one of our brother track officials in tragic circumstances.”

What’s that, Ron? Someone died?

Well, at least it wasn’t a paying customer. Walker’s Grand Prix Corporation has a $200 million public liability policy to protect spectators – but not unpaid race officials like Graham Beveridge.

Not that Walker actually “announced” anything. As we know, it was left to the drivers to break the news at the post-race press conference. 3AW’s Neil Mitchell and celebrity driver claimed he knew about the death well before the race was over but did not bother to tell his newsroom for the 4pm bulletin.

Not content to insult the family of the “brother track official” by reporting his death in the same breath as announcing the breakdown of crowd figures, Walker ventured on a rare public relations initiative.

As a communications strategy, not unlike the efforts our Mayor Costigan has taken to cement his relationship with ratepayers during a term of office in which he’s supervised a total council meltdown. He’s surely been our best Lord Mayor since, well – since Ron Walker.

But unlike Costigan – a member of the ex-journo club gone on to bigger and greater deeds – Walker is too damn tough for our State Government to sack. He’s still Victoria’s Major Events godfather and he’ll stay that way until someone in Spring Street grows a spine.

Looming before the media in that ghoulish black pinstripe suit, like an undertaker in search of his next client, Walker showed why that nice Mr Bracks is way too scared to bring him to heel – even if Ronny is banker of choice for his government’s nominal political rival, the Liberal Party of Australia.

Part A of the Walker communications strategy was to hose down the whole death thing as a “one in a billion” misfortune, throw a few crowd stats at the media and maintain that our local park is a plenty safe place to run a grand prix.

“There’s nothing else we can do to make the track any safer,” was the message about a track boasting a gap in a safety fence that let through a rogue tyre travelling at 200-plus km an hour.

Another winning line was his suggestion that further track safety improvements were impractical without building a concrete wall, blocking out his precious paying customers.

Part B of the plan was to do the talkback radio rounds on Monday morning.

Flabby, friendly interviewers like Neil Mitchell – whose station, 3AW, sponsors the event and who had managed to squeeze into one of the cars for the “celebrity” race on Sunday – were tickled and strummed like two-dollar guitars. And the noise was just as sweet.

Mitchell’s weak, sycophantic “interview” was a high water mark on the pious forelock-tugging format he has made his very own. More like an on-air exchange of bodily fluids, Mitchell cooed and sighed while Ronny explained how the motor racing fraternity would look after the family of its latest roadkill. He even let slip the total amount of compensation the family was allowed under the insurance contract. Wait for it.

$50,000.

Yep, you heard right. Fifty grand pays for one person’s life in the heady, multi-billion dollar world of formula one.

Crikey, that wouldn’t pay for the renovations Ron’s doing to his private pier down at Sorrento, so as to make room for dry-dock facilities for his new ocean going vessel. Spy Lawrence Money speculated the pier extension alone could cost some $100,000.

Not that Mitchell seemed to think the $50,000 was a parsimonious price. Ron told Mitchell that some extra dosh for the family would be raised when the teams auction the drivers’ helmets, suits, and jockstraps at a charity bash some time in the future. It will be interesting to see how deep Chairman Ron dips into his own pocket – once he’s washed away the lingering smell of Mitchell’s feculent ejecta.*

Over at 3LO, resident prickly pear Jon Faine told his listeners that the last time a track marshal was felled by a race tyre – Paolo Ghislimberti at Monza last September – the team whose car killed him initially refused to pay out anything because they denied liability. It was only when F1 heavies started talking tough that they agreed to throw the bereaved family a few lire.

Any interviewer who dared ask Walker reasonably pertinent questions, like Faine, was cut off at the knees.

Walker, of course, is Melbourne point man for that philanthropic anthropolite, Bernie Ecclestone, who gouges $18 million a year from the State of Victoria for the privilege of allowing us to stage the grand prix. Not that either the Kennett or Bracks governments have revealed the figure to taxpayers. No, this secret payment is “commercial in confidence” and, as Terry Lane pointed out on raceday in the Sunday Age, you have to read Crikey to get close to the truth.

When Faine asked whether Ecclestone, the billionaire formula one monopolist, would be coughing up to compensate Graham Beveridge’s family, Walker spluttered something about “emotional claptrap” into his telephone and hung up.

It was a performance that drew parallels with the legendary Faine-Kennett “I’ll just sit here and drink my cup of tea while the penny finally drops out there in listener-land and they decide to vote me out of office” interview.

Misha Schubert reported in the Oz: “Ron Walker ditched a lifetime’s patient diplomacy yesterday when he hung up in disgust during a live radio interview.”

Schubert, casting Walker as “the town’s Mr Big”, pointed out that when he calmed down, Mr Big was singing a more agreeable tune: “I’m prepared to consider any measure that might improve safety,” he told her.

Meanwhile over at 3AK, Derryn Hinch didn’t interview Walker, but still revved up his band of pensioners and homemakers with an editorial about grand prix safety.

But we can’t say we weren’t warned. The doughty opponents of the venue have long reminded us that Phillip Island, Victoria’s historic motor sports playground, is bigger, safer, with longer safety runoff areas than Albert Park. And Melbourne’s Sandown Park was built for motor racing.

Still, Jeff Kennett and Ron Walker went ahead and turned Albert Park into a grand prix track, so global TV viewers could glimpse Melbourne’s mundane city skyline and a flat, muddy, man-made lake surrounded by our “remodelled” park.

It is a glorious tourism coup that has lured hundreds of thousands of Grand Prix viewers from their hammocks in Mexico City and their lounges in Lucerne, all thronging to Melbourne to sample the homely, vanilla thrills of Albert Park and the greater metropolitan region.

You see them on every street corner during grand prix week, the teeming throngs of international visitors, riding our trams, photographing our penguins, visiting the ‘G. They have turned the event into a bonanza for us all.

They’re the ones drinking Foster’s. It is rumoured that several kegs of the stuff get sold during race week.

Ultimately and properly, the coroner will rule on the grad prix death after a thorough investigation. That didn’t stop every media commentator within cooee of the track from throwing in their view, and it won’t stop us.

How about starting with the bloke who drove his car at 250 km an hour into the back of Ralf Schumacher’s vehicle?

How much responsibility should Jacques Villeneuve bear for his comparatively simple high-speed driving error?

We’ve all seen the footage of the car clipping Schumacher’s rear, and launching like a jet fighter firing off an aircraft carrier into the crowd barrier, before smashing into smithereens, the parts dispersing into the crowd.

Jacques walked away from the wreckage of his – how ironic – Lucky Strike British American Racing Honda

Calling this a “one in a billion” accident is about as ingenuous as calling a cigarette brand “Lucky Strike”.

Until now, we’ve known Jacques mainly as Dannii Minogue’s playboy fiancee. Sort of the Pierre Treudeau of F1.

Just recently the tabloids disclosed that his preference for playing Dungeons & Dragons alone in his room had won out over true love for our very own soap star.

The way Jacques has been driving, it looks like Dannii got out just in time.

Just as he walked away from our Dannii, Jacques seems to have melted into the background after his little bingle in the park on Sunday.

And Jacques has form. He’s done it before. As Ralf Schumacher pointed out: “I think Jacques overrated himself a bit, just like last year in Canada, when he again ran into my car.”

Schumacher’s matter-of-fact description of the crash is pretty chilling: “I braked and suddenly I felt a huge bang in the back and saw Jacques flying over me. I spun, hoping I would crash nowhere…”

It’s even more chilling to remember that Jacques’ own father, the brilliant and beloved Gilles, died in a formula one car nearly 20 years ago.

On Sunday, this is what Jacques said about his bingle: “I couldn’t see whether to go inside or outside (of Schumacher) and he braked late.”

Well, matey, where we come from, that’s no excuse for slamming into someone’s rear end. That’s license suspension material.

Who will next fall victim to the Villeneuve family death wish?

Sunday’s events have been, deservedly, blanket media coverage material – race organisers and the broadcasting network knew half an hour before the chequered flag that a serious injury had marred the event. Yet they collectively chose to sail on blithely as if nothing serious had happened, not troubling the public with any disturbing information that might spoil their Sunday.

And those who saw the ambulance carrying the critically injured man to the emergency helicopter forced to give way to that idling procession of racing cars – so that the drivers might keep their tyres warm – may chose to ponder the formula one industry’s priorities.

Bread and circuses before humanity. And, where possible, keep the unpleasant news until after the world has switched off the broadcast and settled back to watch some reality TV.

Here’s what polymath broadcast host Eddie McGuire said: “Could we have assessed the information a bit quicker? Maybe.”

McGuire acknowledged he had been told Beveridge was either critically injured or had been killed. But “we had no official word, and the producers told me that we would sit until we got the official announcement from the Grand Prix association.”

As Andrew Dodd pointed out in the Oz, Beveridge was pronounced dead at 3.08pm. Still, Nine didn’t acknowledge it “even though it was apparent more than half an hour later – when victory celebrations were delayed – that something was wrong.”

“Probably not ideal” is how GP Corp PR flak, Geoffrey Harris, described the fact that it was left to race winner Michael Schumacher to reveal Mr Beveridge’s death. Harris, a former drag racing stringer for the Hun, was way out of his depth.

So was it SNAFU, conspiracy, or just cold-blooded commercial priorities before humanity? We favour a combination of all three. And you just had to log in to the official grand prix website to see this wonderful blend of callous greed and stupidity. The website, headed “This is living!”, virtually ignores Beveridge’s death. Buried in the fourth last par of the race report was the sad news. Everything else about the site gave readers the impression the day had gone perfectly.

As Daniel Bowen said in a letter to the Age pointing out the net gag: “Is that Ron Walker I see holding a bucket of whitewash?”

Yes, the clammy, censorial hands of Melbourne Inc were all over this clumsily-handled incident. Not only did Eddie and Ron decide not to dampen the paying public’s entertainment with the truth, the dead man’s name was then suppressed.

Since when did Ron Walker and Eddie McGuire become our official censors?

As Greg Baum pointed out in the Age the next day, Walker places haughty store in his own name. Wrote Baum: “On the accompanying press release, Walker was “Mr Ronald Walker, AO, CBE”, as if anyone gave a fig for honorifics at a time like this.”

The censors finally released Graham Beveridge’s details on Monday, giving him in death the dignity of his own name.

As to the carrot-topped Chairman, some civic leader surely must be thinking of commissioning a statue of Ronald Walker, AO, CBE – a sturdy bronze cast – underneath a large fig tree in the Botanic Gardens, where roost those millions of miscreant bats.

But fit for bronzing as he is, Ron Walker didn’t drive the car that killed Graham Beveridge. The man who did that is preparing for the Malaysian GP, where the next round of competitors, spectators, and officials will put their lives at risk for the opium of petroleum, speed and power.

Stop press: Walker and Ecclestone have announced they will contribute $50,000 each to the Graham Beveridge appeal. So much for Faine’s “emotional claptrap”.

ends

Now, this is a transcript of the Beyond The Barricades segment broadcast by Save Albert Park’s Keith Wiltshire on 3CR last Monday.

Fix the GP conflicts

Yesterday, Sunday 4th, was Clean Up Australia Day. Thats what Bernie Ecclestone calls it too. In a couple of weeks it’ll be Clean Up Malaysia Day and so on in the 15 other Formula One venues. Last year he “cleaned up” to the tune of $1.8 billion. Despite booster claims of economic benefit, Bernie’s clean-up leaves little behind except environmental damage. And after the past week’s performance by press and TV, there’s not a lot of journalistic dignity left either.

We don’t expect much from media with commercial interests in the Grand Prix. But as Terry Lane argued on 774 Radio (29th), the ABC was also effectively advertising this private commercial event in a public park. Sports news, 774’s early morning, afternoon and drive programs, and TV’s Stateline on Friday – all sometimes seemed driven by the Jonathan Shier vision of a more business-oriented ABC.

And the usually sensible – and also publicly funded – SBSTV news (3rd) reported as fact a “$130million Grand Prix boost to the Victorian economy” (based on an economic model strongly questioned in today’s Age Money section). It then claimed that local traders gained from the event, using a tiny and inconsistent sample in Armstrong Street opposite the main track entrance – not good reporting, as SAP’s surveys of traders could easily demonstrate.

There were some minor efforts at media balance. The Herald-Sun (1st) gave prominence to letters which challenged government priorities in funding the Grand Prix, and also reported attacks on the Corporation’s handling of local parking passes – a genuine civic issue. The Age (2nd) had a shot of the SAP protest tent, and Alan Attwood (3rd) noted that SAP continues to call for relocation of the race. Patrick Smith (The Weekend Australian) observed that: “If the Grand Prix has been embraced by the Bracks government, there remains a small but inexhaustible civil resistance to the race”. And he gave a fairly accurate account of SAP’s traditional Wednesday invasion of the track – this time by a Trojan truck carrying 20 people – though the protester who put a lock on the steering wheel didnt really “disappear with the key”.

It was ‘Major Events’ Ron Walker who quickly disappeared from the scene. And “it remains incongruous”, Smith wrote, “that a recreational park should be put aside for a disruptive race that eats petrol and bursts eardrums”.

“Incongruous”: an excellent word, meaning “out of place” and “absurd”.

After a crash in Friday’s practice session, one race team complained about track safety: an intriguing echo of SAP’s now totally vindicated case that the public road is unsafe – a case which, like the launch last week of our Parkwatch Report, received almost no media exposure. Terry Lane eloquently summarised the case against the Grand Prix at Albert Park (Sunday Age, 4th), and aired the claim on www.crikey.com.au that Bernie’s current licence fee is $18 million. If it’s not, he challenged, tell us the true figure. All was overshadowed by the death of a race marshal and injuries to 7 spectators (race officials) or 15 (St John Ambulance) on race day. We refer to it because it’s properly triggered questions which SAP has asked from the beginning: about the need for a permanent purpose-built track, the dubious financial justifications, and issues of public safety and accident liability. After the race Ron Walker announced the claimed attendance figures before mentioning the death of the marshal (as Greg Baum said in The Age, 5th: “all the sensitivity of a ball bearing”). On 774 Radio today Walker was not only “unsure” of the infamous GP Act’s exemption of the Corporation from responsibility for spectators; he suggested a public appeal and an auction of drivers’ equipment to help the bereaved family; and when asked why major beneficiary (and Ron’s partner) Bernie shouldn’t send a cheque, he told John Faine: “Don’t start all this emotional claptrap” and rang off. He later remarked (774 News) apropos the death: “That’s life”.

Jill Singer later told (774 Radio) of the secret evidence at the Casino licence hearing in 1993 that the successful Crown bidders were aware that Melbourne had won the Grand Prix from Adelaide, and of course Ron Walkers involvement in both – as this program reported last year. The Premier’s embracing of the Grand Prix is one thing, like Walker’s embracing the Premier’s wife at Albert Park (Herald-Sun 5th), but how can this man be kept as head of Major Events, a walking conflict of interest if ever there was one? The major clean-up is long overdue.

Peter Fray

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