Formula One and Melbourne’s selfish debate

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert


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    F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel drives in for a pitstop during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park circuit (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

    If you’re a Melbournian, you’ll already be familiar with the ranting and raving that tends to crop up at this time of year as to whether or not Formula One is worth our time (and, more importantly, money).

    Inevitably, the hype will build to a crescendo on Friday, we’ll have the race on Sunday, and the following week the newspapers will report on how everyone had a generally good time. And then life goes on.

    Of course, the closer we get to the expiry of our contract at the end of 2015, the more we need to engage with the arguments for and against. Both sides of the debate are generally well covered by the city’s major media outlets, but here’s the briefest of summaries:

    For: International media coverage, puts Melbourne on the world stage, increases tourism.

    Against: Costs outweigh the benefits.

    So now you’re up to speed.

    A little extra excitement was injected into the argument last week, however, when former F1 driver turned commentator David Coulthard chimed in to the debate via the AGPC’s official podcast, and promptly called Melbournians (or those disinclined against the Grand Prix, at very least) ‘selfish and small-minded’.

    “For the one week of inconvenience, or whatever it is people don’t get the access, then they shouldn’t be so selfish, quite frankly,” he said.

    “They should think of the greater good, what it does for the local economy, what it does to inspire young schoolchildren to want to be engineers, designers, whether it’s in engine design, tyres, whether they want to be drivers.

    “You don’t inspire people by not giving them a taste of what is out there in the world.

    “If people want to be small-minded and not look beyond their personal needs then that’s disappointing.”

    This made me think: those who protest against the Grand Prix aren’t bad people – I’ll be the first to say that any major spending of government money ought to be scrutinised – but are they selfish?

    Fact: Melbourne has a contract, like it or not, to stage the Grand Prix.

    Fact: Having a Grand Prix guarantees Melbourne international media exposure.

    Why, then, are we wasting that exposure on presenting to the world a bitter, bickering city when we could instead be welcoming the event with open arms, and debating the cost and wroth when the time comes to talk contracts?

    Australia, I’m disappointed to say, has a habit of portraying itself as a bit of a joke when the spotlight shines upon it. In 2011, we had a unique showcase Mark Webber and his Red Bull charging across the Bolte Bridge – a publicity stunt that should’ve looked spectacular.

    “No, no,” said Melbourne. “You must obey to speed limit when on the bridge.” So the car pootled along in first gear, much to the amusement of the rest of the world.

    And again this year, concerns were raised that the closing of parts of Victoria’s scenic Great Ocean Road to film a promotional video for the race might be “a lovely advertisement for hoon driving”, according to a local councillor.

    This is the side of us we want the world to see? This is the best we’ve got? Give me a break.

    Each time the race’s antagonists publicly hold back an opportunity for the Grand Prix to do its thing, it is they who are limiting how much this city gets in return for its investment.

    Each time one of them knocks back the opportunity to have the race promoted around the world, they reduce the race’s value.

    For every poorly informed, inflammatory comment made about the race, a team, a driver, or about Bernie Ecclestone, our race is worth a little less, and a little more of the Grand Prix’s good work is undone.

    We’re not paying for Formula One just watch some cars race around a track, we’re paying to promote our city’s image – and every time word of our bitterness about the cost makes its way to the international press, that image we’re working hard to promote becomes stained and tarnished.

    So rather than this perpetual ranting and raving, Melbourne ought to exercise patience. Argue tooth-and-nail at the right time, with the right people. And in the meanwhile, seize this spotlight while it lasts, make the most of it now – because if you, who argues against this race, gets your way, that spotlight will be gone forever.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart ? but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (30)

    • Roar Guru

      February 18th 2013 @ 1:56pm
      Alan Nicolea said | February 18th 2013 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

      Some good points Michael. Enjoyed the read.

    • February 18th 2013 @ 2:12pm
      Allanthus said | February 18th 2013 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

      Hi Michael

      Selfishness is in the eye of the beholder. I love sport and I’ve never tied a yellow ribbon around a tree in Albert Park, or anywhere for that matter. I love that I can walk less than a kilometre to such a world class event in my city. But I can also see when something has come, or is very close to having come to the end of its shelf life.

      Just what is “international media exposure” worth any more? Whatever it’s worth I’d contend that its a whole lot less than when the grand prix first came to Melbourne.

      I can assure you that the “rest of the world” did not watch on in amusement at Mark Webber driving slowly across the Bolte Bridge. The vast majority either didn’t know about it or didn’t care.

      The 2012 grand prix cost the Victorian taxpayers $56.7m. This year the figure will be higher. That’s a very high price to pay for “putting Melbourne on the world stage”, whatever that is.

      I admire your passion for your sport. But don’t confuse that with calling out people who see it differently as selfish. Teachers and Ambulance drivers trying to eke out a wage increase from the state government while such serious coin is being diverted into Bernie Ecclestone’s pockets, would make the same accusation of you.

      • Columnist

        February 18th 2013 @ 5:07pm
        Michael Lamonato said | February 18th 2013 @ 5:07pm | ! Report

        I admire that your argument is grounded in economics. The debate as to whether or not we continue with the race should come down to money and value alone.

        In terms of international media exposure, Formula Money – an independent reference tool for sponsors and promoters in Formula One – valued Melbourne’s international exposure at $816 million over the past four years.

        What can’t denied is the amount of money being spent. You’re right, $56.7 million is a lot. An economic impact assessment a year or so ago found that the race was worth around $70 million annually.

        Should these numbers be debated? Certainly. But we mustn’t make the assumption that we’re getting nothing back for the cost of the race. Maybe we’re getting a little, maybe a lot – but it isn’t nothing. If the government feels truly that the benefit isn’t worth the cost, then I fully expect it to walk away from Formula One in 2015.

      • February 19th 2013 @ 12:23pm
        Kev said | February 19th 2013 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

        The argument about diverting money to health and education is a tired and at best, a thin one. The question that is never asked of the health and education sectors is, what are you doing with the millions if not billions in funding that you receive each and every year that require you to stick your hand out for more money?

      • February 22nd 2013 @ 3:34pm
        Mark Jones said | February 22nd 2013 @ 3:34pm | ! Report

        While you make some points, the Australian Tennis Open is not subjected to anywhere near the same level of criticism. How much scrutiny is given to its funding and international coverage? The original Albert Park racetrack of the 1950s was assasinated by press coverage and it became a loss with repucussions not realised until many years, even decades later.

    • February 18th 2013 @ 2:25pm
      Bunny Colvin said | February 18th 2013 @ 2:25pm | ! Report

      How much money does the Victorian government pay to stage the Australian Open tennis? They have spent a mint on facilities down there, prize money for winning each section is $2 million, you even get about 80k to get bounced in the first round nowadays. I believe the new facilities there are something like $500 million on top of what they have already knocked up, Rod Laver, Hi-Sense etc..

      Now factor this in against who actually plays tennis and follows it all year round. We have empty tennis courts across the nation. Go take a look for yourselves. Also, you get bugger all kids picking up a racquet nowadays because they are all sitting in front of their ipods playing the interweb.

      Okay got that, now how many people work in the motor industry in Australia? How many people drive cars EVERYDAY of their lives.

      End of the day, we are a car country. It is the blood in Australia’s veins. Tennis is a great game, but Grand Prix racing is what we do everyday to live, drive and survive.

      If anything, build a permanent motor racing facility like Hockenheim, Silverstone or Monza. Then you can get 12 months a year use out of the joint. I think Albert Park is pretty, but in a lousy spot for motoring. You cannot even go down there and cut laps due to the speed humps, lights, intersections, black swans gumming up the works etc..

      Okay and the argument for which gives the greater international exposure, GP or tennis. Does everyone realise the tennis is the distant 4th major in the world. The time zone is attrocious and it is on networks like Eurosport which is not even a major pay tv network. In the US, it is on one of the ESPN’s. The only FTA coverage is in OZ.

      Now the Grand Prix is on FTA throughout the world. Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia you name it. People love their cars. The 3AW and 3LO talk back brigade who hate it are the minority of the world. Stick to moaning about the cuts to your pensions people!

      If the tennis stays, so does the Grand Prix.

      • February 18th 2013 @ 3:56pm
        Allanthus said | February 18th 2013 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

        Bunny, the location is one of the biggest things that makes the Melbourne GP special. The aerial shots of the track around the lake with beach to one side and city skyline to the other are what sells the city to potential visitors.

        Shift the event to a new track an hour and a half out of town and what have you got? Another Eastern Creek? If it ever got there at all the event would be dead within a year.

        Love your comment btw, “…grand prix racing is what we do everyday to live, drive and survive”…
        don’t hold back on the sweeping statement on our account…

        I do agree with you that driving around Albert Park is incredibly frustrating, as is Mt Panorama – you’re on a famous circuit, there’s clear space in front, you know you can be trusted to handle your car properly not like some young, inexperienced hood….but… you’re stuck on 40kph…. it’s a bit like being given an HSU credit card and the keys to a knock shop, but then being told you have to keep your pants on.

      • February 18th 2013 @ 4:05pm
        hawker said | February 18th 2013 @ 4:05pm | ! Report

        I’m with Coulthard. I’m not a big motorsport fan (been to the GP once enjoyed it enough) but I can’t stand all these whingers who want to ruin it for the people who do care and do go and do love it.

    • February 18th 2013 @ 3:21pm
      matt said | February 18th 2013 @ 3:21pm | ! Report

      grand prix racing is way too cool for nannystraya to handle, we should stick to safe sports where nobody gets hurt, like cricket, tennis and facebook.

    • Roar Pro

      February 18th 2013 @ 3:40pm
      albatross said | February 18th 2013 @ 3:40pm | ! Report

      Coulthard’s spray is just the first shot from Bernie’s locker in the battle for hearts and minds prior to the contract re-negotiation. Bernie is hoping for a cowed state (and possibly a populist Federal) government terrified of losing the franchise to drastically increase the amount paid for it beyond 2015.

      Fostering a belief that the event is not fully appreciated by the city’s populace also gives Bernie an out to take his circus off to a higher bidder.

      It is interesting to reflect that a number of countries no longer feel compelled to tip wads of dosh into the pockets of gentlemen of doubtful probity in order to host what has become an increasingly boring and predictable procession – especially the races held on street circuits.

      • Columnist

        February 18th 2013 @ 4:49pm
        Michael Lamonato said | February 18th 2013 @ 4:49pm | ! Report

        The politics of Formula One is colourful – to say the least. Bernie’s job is to do deals, and to maximise his employer’s revenue. I would that no Australian politician would lay down at the negotiation table. On that note, I might add that a number of countries have had their hosting fee reduced in the past few years – particularly those in our time zone.

        It’s also worth pointing out that last year’s season featured the most races ever for Formula One (twenty, with many more countries ready to join the calendar in the coming three years), seven different winners in the first seven races, and a championship decided by three points. Valencia – more of a street circuit than ours – was one of last year’s most exciting events.

        Formula One isn’t to everyone’s tastes, this much is definitely obvious. But arguing over its value as a sport (as you’ve just tried to do), and taking shots and Bernie Ecclestone (innocent until proven guilty, remember) is exactly what we *shouldn’t* be doing. It contributes nothing to what should be a rational, sensible argument – the Grand Prix in Melbourne is an act of parliament, after all.

      • Roar Guru

        February 19th 2013 @ 10:42am
        Mat Coch said | February 19th 2013 @ 10:42am | ! Report

        Bernie would not have prompted the comments from DC. He doesn’t need to. FOM has little to no interest in public opinion of the event, just what it can extract from the promoters. Keeping the event popular is the sole responsibility of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation.

        Michael is correct in a number of events have recently negotiated new deals with more favorable terms. Singapore, Canada and Great Britian spring to mind. Many of the current deals were struck when the market was stronger and signed for the long term. That guaranteed the sports future earnings which has safe guarded it, and has built its value, however in the current market FOM has had to be more open to negotiation, and it has been.

        The trend I expect we will see going forward is a move to somewhat reduced hosting fees but a growing move towards pay-TV deals like those in the UK, France and US. Formula One has historically been free-to-air as it maximises sponsorship exposure for teams, but with 500m+ viewers globally there is a lot of money to be made by moving to pay-TV.

        There was talk a decade or so back about Foxtel having the television rights to F1 in Australia. Indeed I seem to recall the Malaysian GP shown on Foxtel one year as a stand alone event (1999 perhaps?).

        Ultimately the Grand Prix in Australia boils down to an opportunity/cost equation. Does what it’s spending on it justify what it provides as a return?

    • February 18th 2013 @ 5:20pm
      Daniel said | February 18th 2013 @ 5:20pm | ! Report

      I really don’t care either way about the race but David’s comments sound very selfish and small minded

      • February 19th 2013 @ 12:18pm
        Kev said | February 19th 2013 @ 12:18pm | ! Report

        Funny you say that because your comments describe the NIMBY’s in and around Albert Park perfectly.