Features - Interview
FEBRUARY 1, 1996
BY JOE SAWARD
Melbourne has long had the rather stodgy image of being a dull, rundown, drizzly city. Since Jeff Kennett took over as Victorian State Premier, however, the city has received a shot in the arm. Investment has poured into the city and there has been considerable property development, notably what they call the Southgate development, which has transformed the old docks and warehouses along the Yarra into an attractive riverfront on three levels. Kennett set up Melbourne Major Events with the aim to stage a major event in the city every month, be that international tennis, the Melbourne Cup horse race, a test match, the Australian football Grand Final or the Grand Prix. Melbourne wants to rekindle its old image as a sporting city. It hosted the 1956 Olympic Games lest we forget.
Like Adelaide Melbourne is an old colonial city, with plenty of parkland. Laid out in 1836 it was named after the British Prime Minister of the day Lord Melbourne. The downtown area is laid out in grid just like Adelaide, but it is three times the size of its rival - thanks largely to suburbs which extend for miles in all directions feeding downtown by wide sweeping boulevards.
Today there are around three million people in Melbourne and they reckon that almost a million come from a Greek background. The broad ethnic mix also includes almost half a million Italians - who will no doubt be at Albert Park to cheer on the Ferraris.
Albert Park is not far from the city and can be approached on one of the old yellow and green trams which scuttle about Melbourne, making it reminiscent of a European city.
There are a lot of similarities in fact with Montreal. The Yarra River may not be as imposing as the St Lawrence but the downtown tower blocks are not far from the track and the city bubbles in much the same way as Montreal.
And like Montreal the race track does not feel like a street circuit. There is no question that this will be a good track - whether the protesters like it or not. Despite the large amounts of media coverage it receives the Save Albert Park movement is not very big and when you chat to the locals it is hard to find anyone who does not want the race.
"The initial opposition campaign by Save Albert Park seemed to be founded on an underlying premise that Albert Park would be destroyed by the works in the park," says Melbourne Grand Prix chief executive Judith Griggs. "People can now see for themselves - irrespective of what I say - that they can walk around, jog around, ride their bikes around, drive around Albert park and see the tremendous improvements which have been made. That happened in May when Lakeside Drive opened. Then they could see that there was a boulevard of palm trees and so on. The feedback we got from the public was that the whole place looked wonderful and this was a park which has been neglected for so many years in terms of financial investment. In fact, apart from the dredging of the lake, there had been no investment in the park in over 20 years.
"Albert Park is traditionally a sporting park. Just about everyone you meet in Melbourne says they played football, cricket or rugby in Albert Park at some point in their lives. But the facilities were abysmal. There were structures but no services and that sort of thing. People can see now the new facilities, the new ovals and playing fields which we have put up."
Griggs seems, at first, an unlikely chief executive for a Formula 1 Grand Prix and yet she has quietly been involved in Grand Prix racing for the last 10 years. Her first involvement came through the Australian Grand Prix office in Adelaide, for which she began working as a lawyer in 1986. In 1989 F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone asked her in the Adelaide paddock if she would like to work for his FOCA organisation in London. She headed for England a few months later and spent the next four years on Bernie's staff.
"He is a fantastic man to work for," she says. "The most amazing mind. He's so quick of mind and wit and a handshake is worth more than any document."
When Ecclestone concluded the deal for Melbourne to run the Australian Grand Prix he asked Griggs is she would like to run the show. She jumped at the chance.
"F1 gets into the blood. If you talk to anyone who is involved whatever their capacity - from the sponsors to the marshals, by the time you get to two o'clock on race day there are thousands of people who are involved - it is an enormous culmination of skills, experience and expertise."
That will certainly be true in Melbourne. The battles with Save Albert Park are just a small part of the job which has been done since Griggs's appointment. Albert Park has been largely rebuilt. Many of the sports grounds have been relaid and drained properly and the old permanent facilities have 5been replaced.
"When we were given the responsibility of staging a F1 event in Albert Park there were options considered as to how we would plan for the pit facilities," says Griggs. "One option was to do as Adelaide had done and put up a temporary structure every year. We even had an option to buy the Adelaide structure which is a modular steel structure with 45 garages. It takes 4-5 months every year to put up and take down at a recurrent cost of S1 million Australian dollars or thereabouts. For the rest of the year - when it is not there - it leaves a very extensive concrete slab on the ground. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out that this was not an ideal solution.
"We spent a lot of time with the engineers and architects and designers from Melbourne Parks and Waterways to try and find a multi-use solution and designed facilities which can be used for other sports as well. The buildings will have two modes: sports mode and Grand Prix mode. There are six individual buildings, in sports mode five of them are 9.3 metres high inside and suitable for indoor netball, basketball and so on. In Grand Prix mode they are converted by dropping in a suspended flooring system at mezzanine level. The ground floor - which has doors front and rear which open up in either mode - becomes garages and the upstairs is used for hospitality units.
"The sixth building is fitted out with these levels all year round and in sports mode is used for community meeting rooms, for sports groups and so on. In GP mode they become the media centre, event administration, timekeeping and so on. For nine months of the year the buildings are in sports mode, the transition to Grand Prix mode and back takes up the other three months. In sports mode the pitlane can be used as access and parking."
Many of the other Adelaide facilities have found their way to Melbourne.
"We have purchased the concrete barriers, debris fencing, spectator bridges and several grandstands. We are putting up almost double the amount of temporary structures that they do in Adelaide - but we are doing it in about the same time frame. There were inflammatory suggestions that we were going to take over the whole park for four months of the year, but what we do is start work in a very localized area and gradually build out."
Funding for the project has so far come from two separate programmes: capital works and recurrent event budget.
"The capital programme was given an allocation of $45 () the state government in May 1994. That was a one-off payment to cover set-up costs. In Adelaide a study they did in 1992 said that the race produced $37m () in economic benefit every year."
"On the recurrent basis temporary grandstands, the costs of staging events, administration, marketing, promotion and all of those costs are to be funded through ticket sales, sponsorship, licensing, concessions and other revenue-generating opportunities. We aim to make a cash surplus."
That is admirable but Adelaide never managed to make much money. How will Melbourne be different?
"You have to set your objectives high and be absolutely focussed and committed to it," says Griggs. "We have worked very hard on this project. We have done a lot of homework on numbers. We have been aggressively marketing the corporate facilities. Our aim is to have a safe race - safety is paramount in my mind - but we want to run the best Grand Prix in the world first up; improve the park - which by any criteria I believe we have done; and maximize the awareness of Melbourne as a tourist destination, by engendering greater awareness of Melbourne and thus maximize the economic benefits. We think that this venue has a tremendous amount to offer. Melbourne is the sports capital of Australia."
Outside the Grand Prix offices are a handful of protesters with a banner strung between the precious trees. Some say that the protest is no longer about Albert Park but rather because people are not happy with the way that Premier Kennett has forced through legislation to make sure that the race happens.
The protesters are threatening to cause an international incident at the race but Griggs and her team are wondering if it might be necessary to make arrangements to protect the protesters from the thousands of race fans who will come to the park to watch the action. Whatever the case Melbourne's 30,000 hotel rooms will all be full when the F1 circus comes to town...
A lap of Albert Park
The three and a quarter mile Albert Park circuit should make for some great racing. From the startline there is a short blast into a 90-degree right hander which opens out to the left as the cars accelerate away from the pit buildings and join the old road which used to called Aughtie Drive. This straightens out and blasts down to a another 90-degree right - a good overtaking spot. There is a quick flick through a left-hander in the shadow of the South Melbourne Cricket Ground and then it is back on the gas, around the back of the cricket grandstands, through a quick right-hander and a short straight running parallel to Albert Road.
The next intersection will be a fast right-hander which tapers left at the exit into a fast flowing curve beside the lake. The chicane which follows may provide some overtaking but the next bit of track will allow the fans to see some high-speed motoring. This is a long curling blast with the track bordered by an avenue of trees and the lake. It is vaguely reminiscent of the old Shoreline Drive at Long Beach. There is a left-right flick at the Clubhouse Keg restaurant and then a fast right-hander called Powerhouse before wild braking into a 90-degree right at the end of the straight.
The road then runs up the end of the lake and then turns right back towards the pits through a couple of tighter corners.