Elite international motor racing may be expensive, wasteful and killing the planet, but it’s on really thin ice in Australia when those in charge start lying to the paymasters.
Anyone who has spent time at Albert Park in mid-March can proudly claim to have been among some of the biggest crowds on the whole of the annual Formula One calendar, which includes flashy stop-offs in places like Monte Carlo, Istanbul and Budapest.
Even so, a scandal has erupted after a race-hating Melbourne group that calls itself Save Albert Park (SAP) tried and failed to get Grand Prix organisers to reveal their tricky formula for calculating how many people shell out to watch Ferrari and McLarens race alongside Lakeside Drive each year. SAP’s own counts at the actual gates suggest that the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) has been tallying you, your cap, earplugs and Panadol as well as the bum on your seat.
Amid the ruckus, which involved the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, race organisers were shamed into conceding that — for example — schoolkids with free tickets are indeed counted as race-goers, even though they are wearing striped ties and blazers with no more than lolly-money in their pockets rather than Red Bull caps in a $600 grandstand seat.
Also added to the official crowd figures, which are used by the AGPC to jack up the price for sponsors, is the guy who cleans recycled beer in the toilets for $12 an hour, and the pretty model in a leotard who feigns holding a brolly while giving Lewis Hamilton’s mechanics something to ogle on the grid.
The Save Albert Park mob is usually ridiculed by those in South Melbourne nightspots during GP week as geriatric tree-hugging do-good party-poopers who are simply yet to cotton on to the scientific fact that a high speed shunt at Turn 13 is infinitely more fun than a stroll with the poodle alongside a quiet Aughtie Drive.
But when it becomes an issue of justifying taxpayer money for a city-disrupting, public-park closing event, the tree-huggers have stolen the high moral ground, fun day at the races or no. When tax dollars are used to regularly pollute a large and closed-off section of a major city, absolute transparency is the only relevant card for the AGPC to play.
If the race’s organisers rented or built a private circuit and, like British GP venue Silverstone, received nothing from the government, then fair game. So, too, if it becomes known that 100,000 official patrons per year are actually at home or working on the cars in the Melbourne pits each year, and the event is still tolerated by taxpayers and made viable by corporate support.
But when the AGPC’s funny numbers are construed even by die-hard race fans as overstating the event’s importance, perhaps it really is time for a rethink.