Moving backwards in Formula One isn’t typically a good thing, but discussions about the 2014 F1 calendar at last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix got me thinking about an event closer to home, and one that might need to take a step or two back in order to go forwards.
As an Australian (by residence at least), I’ve been somewhat pessimistic for several years now about the future of the Australian Grand Prix, and whether it would be priced out of the calendar and go the way of so many other venues from F1’s past that have made way for its (cashed up) successors.
While Australia remains one of the favourite spots for many in F1’s travelling circus, the fact remains that eight races on this year’s calendar (Malaysia, China, Bahrain, Singapore, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and Austin) have debuted since Melbourne came on stream in 1996 – and as much as the paddock and pit buildings at Albert Park have improved beyond belief in the 17 years since, the facilities aren’t in the same stratosphere as the money-is-no-object Yas Marina Circuit, or the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas in Texas.
Without naming names, there are several tracks that don’t stack up to Melbourne in terms of attendance or infrastructure, but that doesn’t guarantee Melbourne a place on the ever-expending calendar from 2015 onwards, which is when the current contract runs out. The debate over what is paid to host the race in Melbourne – and who it’s paid to – has been and will continue to be discussed ad nauseum each March when the majority of the local media remember Australia has a global sporting event on its shores, but putting that to one side, it seems that if Australia is to remain on the calendar, giving up the coveted ‘first race of the season’ status might be the key.
Think of the main discussion points in recent years. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone would prefer Australia becomes a night race, but the chances of that are, realistically, nil. Despite that, Ecclestone is keen for the race to stay in Australia, telling the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast earlier this year that he’d “be happy to sign a 50-year contract” with Melbourne, which generated plenty of local discussion on the eve of the 2013 season-opener. Both parties seem keen to continue if the price and terms are right, and one way this could happen is if Melbourne vacates the calendar slot it has enjoyed for 16 of its 18 Grands Prix to date.
There’s a big push for the 2014 season to start in Bahrain, with teams potentially testing there and leaving their equipment trackside to start the new season. Testing in warmer climates makes sense after this year’s Spanish “summer” made meaningful pre-season running in the sun as elusive as a race where Mark Webber nails the start. As Daniel Ricciardo told me in March: “I get the feeling that if we went to places like Abu Dhabi or even somewhere in Oz or Malaysia, testing would be much more relevant.” Bahrain isn’t a bad compromise.
Of course, holding the much-anticipated first race of the season at the Sakhir Circuit isn’t ideal for the F1 fan, be they hard-core enthusiast or someone who tunes in occasionally, especially when there’s something new to watch. We know from previous events there that very few people attend, there’ll be plenty of people working in the sport that wish they weren’t there, and that the circuit might be the dullest of the cookie-cutter Tilke tracks (Abu Dhabi at least looks prettier, but the racing in Bahrain is typically uninspiring). But I digress.
Walking away from the first race isn’t an easy thing for Australia to do. There’s something special about the new liveries, new beginnings and sense of anticipation that comes with that opening practice in Melbourne. Almost every driver worth their salt on the current grid debuted in Australia. But isn’t it better to have a horse in the race than none at all? If stepping back gives Australia some continuity and security after 2015, then it should – must – happen.