Before this week is out, Ron Walker and diminutive F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone are expected to swap knuckledusters for pens to ink a new contract for the Melbourne GP through 2015. Cue cheers from motorsport fans.
But what of those taxpayers who, unlike the soft-headed race fans who shell out $150 year-after-year for the latest Ferrari cap, are less wasteful with their money? For them, it is more important that the Victorian government has done a good deal with Ecclestone, a 77-year-old former used-car salesman who made a slipshod band of blokes smelling of oily rags into the millionaire Formula One Team Bosses of today.
Indeed, Ecclestone’s native tongue is money. This year, he axed Indianapolis despite America being the primary market for the sport’s biggest and most influential manufacturers and sponsors. A few years ago he showed no mercy for the Belgian Grand Prix over nothing more than a dispute over trackside cigarette advertising, despite there being no venue more historic or popular.
Make no mistake. Ecclestone would have scratched Melbourne if the Brumby government hadn’t agreed to a price-hike. It is well known that Victoria pays less for its annual privilege than many of its calendar neighbours, but even Melbourne’s new contract will be subject to Bernie’s rates — something like $22-23m per race, increasing by 5% a year.
Ron Walker may, however, have caught Ecclestone at an opportune moment. F1’s tripartite Concorde Agreement — binding the commercial rights holder (Ecclestone), its regulator (the FIA) and the teams — stipulates an annual cap of 17 Grands Prix per season. There are 18 races in 2008, with team bosses compensated with an extra sack of cash, but Ecclestone is pushing like mad for at least 20 races. With burgeoning customers like India on the blower, Ecclestone’s is a bit like the perfect business. He pockets an eight-digit race promoter’s fee plus all the trackside advertising and naming rights money, writes their name and a date on a calendar, and then stands back and watches other people — the teams, sponsors and circuits — pay and sweat to put on the show.
It’s not exactly a race promoter’s market, but with the Concorde Agreement expired — and now the subject of a fascinating Mosley-Ecclestone war — Bernie can theoretically put as many eight-digit a pop races on the calendar as he likes. If Mosley ever agrees to sign a new Concorde, Ecclestone is likely to have at least 20 current Grands Prix set in stone.
After threatening to get out his axe over the night race issue, then, he is probably delighted that Melbourne has been frightened into agreeing to a start time as late as 5.30pm from now on — a much more civil breakfast race for his TV audience back in Europe.
While the promoters’ fee is unlikely to have skyrocketed, there is the issue of the race’s losses. In 1996, the first Melbourne Grand Prix lost less than $2m, but in 2007 it had blown out to $35m. It is important to put these figures in perspective. China spent an eye-watering half billion dollars on its imposing Shanghai Circuit a few years ago. Promoting a Grand Prix in the 21st century is no lemonade-stall enterprise, where profits are calculated by subtracting the cost of the lemons and sugar from the price of the lemonade. In F1, China’s $500 million loss is a profit for the country if an international newspaper talks about Kimi Raikkonen’s overtaking move at Shanghai, and not what the Communist Party’s troops are doing to monks in Tibet.
Anoraks, tip your $150-Ferrari-cap to Mr Walker when he arrives home. The rest of us? Melbourne looks set to stay in the fast lane.