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MAY 21, 2007

Bernie and the Australian Grand Prix

Bernie Ecclestone knows how to apply pressure. At the moment Mr E is rather keen for the TV viewing figures of F1 to rise and in order to achieve this without needing to invest any money in better television or promotion of the World Championship. The quickest way to achieve this is to force race promoters to hold races at times that will attract the largest number of TV viewers and with Europe still being the biggest audience for F1, the aim is to try to make sure that people in Europe do not have to get up in the middle of the night. Ecclestone is only trying this on with those who do not pay him enough money so the Chinese and Japanese are allowed to have their races whenever they please, but the Australians are in a difficult position because they have to answer (to some extent) to politicians and taxpayers and while the race in Albert Park has done much for Melbourne it is hard to quantify the success of the event and thus the media tends to portray the race as costing money, rather than creating it.

Melbourne has a deal until 2010, with options beyond that, but the deal is weighted heavily in Ecclestone's favour because of the demand that exists elsewhere for F1 events. Ecclestone says that he wants Melbourne to do something so "we can watch in Europe and other parts of the world at a respectable time rather than having to get up at three or four in the morning".

This is not as hard as it sounds. The Grand Prix Corporation in Melbourne says it is planning a feasibility study into a night event but that process has yet to begin and there is a difference between a race in the evening and one at night. The current Grand Prix start time in Australia is 1400, which means that it is 0500 in most of Europe and 0400 in the UK. A switch to a start time of 1900 would create a European start time of 1000, a much more civilised hour. A Grand Prix can only last a maximum of two hours. The problem is that sunset in Melbourne in March comes at 1930 and while there will be light for another half an hour to an hour, the race could not be guaranteed to finish before it was dark.

If the race was moved to February, for example, the sunset would be at 2030, so a race starting at 1900 could be run in daylight.

It is no secret that Abu Dhabi is intending to run its race on Sunday February 1 2009. Such a date would not be possible under the current arrangements which stipulate a minimum offseason break of 14 weeks. With the Concorde Agreement coming to an end and teams willing to discuss new ideas it may well be decided to start the season earlier to cut down on testing and increase the revenues from racing. Thus a race in Abu Dhabi on February 1 could be followed by a race in Australia on February 15, with a third race as part of a first extra-European foray. Bahrain might have to move to a different date later in the year but that is not impossible.

Thus Melbourne could host a night race without too much trouble and indeed the party atmosphere might even be improved in the cool of the evening. There would be more time for support events in the course of the day, which might help the whole event seen rather less manic than it does at the moment.

Dumping the race would not be a wise move as it is one of the most popular and best attended races of the year and has long been regarded as the race that new events would like to emulate.