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MELBOURNE, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA — The glum expression on Australian Grand Prix Corporation CEO Andrew Westacott’s sleep-deprived visage confirmed what everyone at Albert Park had suspected. Westacott anxiously gulped before lifting a microphone to his lips to announce the news, flanked by Formula One CEO Chase Carey and AGPC chairman Paul Little.
The feared confirmation started filtering down to the crowds of Mercedes silver and Ferrari red-clad fans stationed at the half-dozen entrances sprinkled around Melbourne’s most picturesque lake thirty minutes later. “F1 has informed the AGPC that the Australian Grand Prix has been cancelled,” courageous racing officials shouted over megaphones.
The announcement was met with a chorus of boos, aggressive cursing, and sarcastic remarks, as one might expect. One disgruntled, hopeful racegoer retorted, “You could have f—-ing told us earlier.” Rather than enjoying their yearly 100 minutes of high-octane motor racing, every fan was obliged to turn around and return home, all without even entering the Albert Park district.
Andrew Westacott, the AGPC’s chief executive, has announced the cancellation of the 2020 Australian Grand Prix. Getty Images/Clive Mason
The decision to postpone the 2020 Australian Grand Prix at the eleventh hour was one no one wanted to make, but it was practically forced upon race organizers and the FIA after McLaren withdrew from the event after a team member returned a positive COVID-19 test.
But it wasn’t the race’s cancellation that had enraged fans. It was the manner in which it was conveyed to them that was the issue. The ticket holders, those who had spent their hard-earned money and stood in line for hours at the gates, appeared to be the last to hear the news. As hundreds of enraged fans left Albert Park, still in amazement, and team employees started packing up garages, you couldn’t help but feel Formula One in Melbourne had hit rock bottom. And that’s putting it mildly.
EVER SINCE THE AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX MOVED FROM ADELAIDE TO ALBERT PARK IN 1996, there have been proposals to cancel the event. Many people used to contend that the four-day event was not just a waste of government money, but also a misappropriation of public space for commercial gain.
“Locals have never loved the grand prix,” Save Albert Park president Peter Goad told ESPN before of the 2020 edition, which was finally canceled. “It’s an event that completely destroys the city, and the government has been lying to the public for years about everything from the expenses to the advantages Melbourne gets as a result of it.”
“They said it would cost taxpayers nothing when it began 25 years ago. So far, we’ve spent nearly AU$1 billion on it. It’s a complete waste of money, and no other athletic event, or even any event, comes close in terms of routinely squandering funds.”
The cost of holding the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in 2019, the last time a grid was constructed, was AU$115 million — a number that includes everything from the race license fee to grandstand construction and demolition charges. However, sponsorship, ticket sales, and product earnings totaled just AU$55 million, implying that the Victorian government would need to contribute an additional AU$60 million to break even and make the event profitable.
Many Victorians have long been unsure about the Australian Grand Prix’s practical advantages. Getty Images/Chris Putnam/Future Publishing
While the accompanying expenditures and financial gap have traditionally been enormous, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews claims that hosting the event generates an annual economic benefit of AU$40 million in the form of increased tourist, worldwide media exposure, and consumer surplus. However, Economists at Large, a consulting firm, estimated in 2012 that such an economic gain would be worth roughly AU$5 million.
In 2011, former Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle remarked, “I enjoy the grand prix, I go to the grand prix, but then again, I prefer Ferraris and don’t have one because it’s too costly.”
Many Melburnians have turned their backs on Formula One and the Australian Grand Prix because of these figures, as well as a lack of transparency from event organizers and the government. For years, the fact that it’s striking them all in the pocketbook while providing no clear and evident advantage has been the main sticking point. Naturally, if you were paying for something you weren’t using, you’d start to have doubts.
For many, the irritation is accentuated by the reality that a Formula One race weekend held on a temporary track barely three kilometers from a major city’s central business district brings with it excessive noise, road closures, traffic congestion, and price hikes.
THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN is the only yearly athletic event in Australia that costs more to organise than the Formula One Grand Prix. Melbourne transforms into a tennis Mecca for the year’s first Grand Slam, hosted only a short drive from Albert Park, bringing thousands of spectators from Australia and across the globe for the two-week tournament. However, one of the most noticeable distinctions between Melbourne’s two most popular sports events is that locals practically never grumble about tennis.
Tennis Australia has worked extensively over the last two decades to ensure that the Australian Open appeals to a bigger audience and is as inclusive as possible. The Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific is now the Southern Hemisphere’s most popular athletic event, and its popularity extends well beyond what happens on the court.
The five-star culinary delights, social mingling in Garden Square with an Aperol Spritz in hand, and, of course, the evening musical events at scenic Birrarung Marr are all part of the Melbourne Park experience. It’s basically a two-week event centered around a tennis tournament that should not be missed.
The Australian Open draws a large crowd to Melbourne’s Garden Square. Tennis Australia/Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images
Craig Tiley, the tournament director for the Australian Open, told ESPN, “About seven years ago, we decided we wanted to redefine the paradigm.” “We decided to make it a worldwide event that focused on both sport and entertainment.” We really wanted to shift our demography and appeal to a new audience by making it younger.
“It’s vital to keep progressing. Parents may now enjoy the culinary pleasures while their children enjoy the ballgame. Making this move was a significant turning point for the event.”
The Australian Open has always diverged from the Australian Grand Prix in terms of providing a product that appeals to a larger audience. A race weekend at Albert Park is always exciting for racing aficionados, but the grand prix organizers have failed to produce anything that would capture the attention of a larger, more diversified audience.
During grand prix weekend, there are support categories, but let’s be honest, nobody buys a ticket for the Supercars or the Porsche Carrera Cup. The major draw is Formula One, and nothing else comes close to matching it.
“If you’re a motorsports lover, you’ll always be excited [for the grand prix], but one of the main challenges has been that a lot of people just aren’t into it,” Goad told ESPN.
Valtteri Bottas won the most recent Formula One race in Australia in 2019. Getty Images/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire
The Australian Open has seen a 55 percent increase in attendance since Tennis Australia switched gears early last decade. The tournament has also surpassed Wimbledon and the US Open to become the world’s most popular tennis event. During the same time span, attendance at the Australian Grand Prix has decreased by 10%. Only once between 2015 and 2019 has the total weekend attendance surpassed 300,000, a figure that was regular in the decade before.
MANY MELBOURNE RESIDENTS were probably unaware at the time, but a change in attitude toward Formula One and the Australian Grand Prix was on the way.
“We were fairly successful in the conventional market,” F1 boss Stefano Domenicali said at the 2022 SportNXT conference in Melbourne. “We had an average age of individuals, predominantly guys between 40 and 55 [years old].” “However, we wanted to adjust the phrase without offending our long-time supporters.”
On the eve of the 2019 season, Netflix launched the first season of Drive to Survive, a docuseries that provides intimate and unique access to what goes on behind the scenes of the world’s fastest sport, in collaboration with Formula One. The first season concentrated on the many dramatic elements of Formula One, such as teammate rivalries, managing engine suppliers, contract negotiations, and, of course, some of the previous year’s significant accidents.
It was met with a resounding success.
“People are moving from saying, ‘I’ve never seen a Formula One race in my life,’ to saying, ‘I’ll never miss a Formula One race again,’” McLaren CEO Zak Brown said.
Season two was published a year later, nearly exactly at the same time that the phrase “coronavirus” had become part of our common lexicon. The 2020 Australian Grand Prix was canceled a few weeks later, and whatever momentum Formula One had achieved looked to have come to a standstill.
The executive producers of Drive to Survive are James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin. Getty Images/Jeff Spicer/Formula 1/Formula 1
The Melbourne race was one of the first big athletic events to be disrupted by COVID-19, but it was far from the last. The Olympic Games were postponed for a year, the NBA was placed in a ‘bubble,’ key tennis and golf tournaments were canceled, and F1’s season was halted. The AFL and NRL, Australia’s two most popular football competitions, were both shut down for months.
As the disease spread throughout the world, several cities began to implement lockdowns. Millions of people were left jobless and trapped at home with nothing to do. So, what do many of us do in a circumstance like this? Begin binge-watching a new TV show.
Over the last 24 months, the globe has altered tremendously. The great majority of the population has now been properly vaccinated, mask requirements have been lifted, and airports have reopened. We’ve witnessed an increase in employment, and big events are once again in full swing. The attitude around Formula One, on the other hand, has undergone a significant shift.
Drive to Survive has now been released, watched, and immensely appreciated for four seasons. The concept that Formula One was merely vehicles circling in a circle has been crushed forever by showing everything from the financial tightrope teams are obliged to walk to the logistical strain of crisscrossing the world. The series changed people’s minds and sparked new fandoms all across the globe.
One racegoer tells ESPN, “I think I simply never really appreciated the sport.” “A lot of people probably found it a little dull at first and didn’t really understand what was going on, but as you hear the stories behind the drivers and what’s going on, it certainly changes your viewpoint.”
Last year, Formula One’s worldwide TV viewership hit an all-time high, with 1.55 billion fans tuning in to witness one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. Formula One is now the world’s fastest-growing major sports league on social media. F1 presently boasts over 50 million total followers across all platforms, and has had the greatest interaction rate with social media among major sports in the last 12 months.
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 1,119 DAYS, THE 20 Formula One cars will roll down the Albert Park pit-lane on Friday afternoon and begin dancing around the 5.303km temporary street circuit.
Those asking for the race to be scrapped have been drowned out by a new army of ardent fans, many of whom are excited to see a Formula One vehicle in person for the first time. When you consider the existing fanbase, who have been without a home grand prix for the better part of three years, and the fact that there’s been a genuine growing sense among locals that the race has long been taken for granted — as evidenced by the palpable void many felt when it was removed over the last two years — it’s no surprise the 2022 event is sold out.
At Albert Park, Daniel Ricciardo is greeted by a swarm of supporters. Getty Images/Clive Mason
On the day of the event, Westacott noted, “Ticket sales are dramatically up by around 25%.” “Consider your favorite rock band, who hasn’t performed in three or four years and whom you’d want to see. We’ll aim for a crowd of 125,000 to 130,000 on both the Sunday and Saturday of the event.”
The proportion of female ticket buyers is a crucial criterion race organizers are increasingly employing to assess the success of an event. In 2019, just one out of every four participants was a woman, however this year, women account for 40% of ticket purchases.
Although the AGPC hasn’t staged a race in three years, it doesn’t mean the organization has been sitting on its laurels. Instead, it’s taken a page from the Australian Open’s playbook and made a concerted effort to deliver a more well-rounded experience for spectators in 2022.
AusGP Sessions will be held for the first time this year, and will include a four-day lineup of live music, as well as a revamped food and beverage offering. M-Lane, a zone within the track, will include food and drink from some of Melbourne’s most famous restaurants and pubs, while four additional regional areas have been built surrounding the track. That’s so Australian Open.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s a remarkable improvement from the bleak Australian Grand Prix sights of 2020.
Many Victorians used to agree with Goad that “if the Australian Grand Prix departed Melbourne, it wouldn’t be missed.” However, the conclusion of Drive to Survive, followed by a three-year sabbatical and a revitalized program, has Albert Park humming like it’s never been before.
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