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COLUMN! The Australian Grand Prix and the importance of free space

When comparing Adelaide and Melbourne as hosts of the Australian Grand Prix, it’s clear one area in which Melbourne significantly lags behind Adelaide is the free space and, therefore, the attention the event is afforded.

The Australian Grand Prix took over Adelaide. From the city to the surrounding suburbs, it was impossible to avoid the fact there was a grand prix on. In contrast, with the track slightly away from Melbourne in Albert Park, the Australian Grand Prix at its current home is often lost amongst the number of major events held on the same weekend.

Martin Brundle, in his book ‘Working the Wheel’, said of Adelaide: “There was an immediate feeling of arriving in a city that really wanted to embrace the race and everything associated with it.” He said of Melbourne: “The grand prix was viewed as just another event threatening to clog the streets.”

In recent years the Australian Grand Prix hasn’t been given free space in the Victorian capital’s sporting calendar. In 2018 it yet again clashed with the opening round of the AFL season, the most popular code in Victoria. No other event can match the AFL in Melbourne. It’s why the likes of the Australian Open tennis and Melbourne Cup thrive outside of the AFL season.

Five of the eight matches in the first round of the AFL were held in Melbourne over the weekend with a total crowd equivalent to the four-day attendance of the Australian Grand Prix. The Melbourne and Geelong match at the MCG even clashed directly with the grand prix. In addition to the opening round of the AFL there was also the AFL Women’s grand final, Game 3 of the NBL grand final series and NRL grand final rematch.

The clashes mean that the Australian Grand Prix must fight for attention. It wasn’t until well into the Australian Grand Prix weekend that the event started to appear on the front pages of the local newspapers. And with the grand prix at Albert Park and football codes in city-based stadiums, it’s easy to lose sight of the international event within Melbourne’s CBD.

The Australian Grand Prix Corporation has acknowledged the clash. And while they’ve talked up the potential benefits of the variety in sporting fixtures on during the one weekend, there’s also a push for more free space.

“Formula One, although we give them guidance, don’t align their calendar to the start of the footy season,” said Australian Grand Prix Corporation chief Andrew Westacott.

“There are opportunities then for people to combine a game of footy with the grand prix and, equally for just our Melbourne sports fans, go to a game on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and come along to the grand prix on the other days.

“It didn’t affect numbers last year but, having said that, I do think our desires for 2019, we would like to have free space because then what it does, it just adds more and more to the calendar and gives free space for the opening of the AFL season and free space for the opening of the Formula One Grand Prix.”

It’s become a regular talking point around the Australian Grand Prix. And recent calls for a change haven’t been heeded.

Westacott said in 2017: “In an ideal world we’ll be the lead up to the AFL season. So if I had my choice for next year I’d be saying that we go the week before the AFL starts, then we’ve got a happy median for everyone.”

While there may be benefits in terms of fans attending both events, by pitting the Australian Grand Prix up against other sports it only heaps the pressure on it to justify itself.

The Australian Grand Prix cost Victorians $97 million in 2017 with a revenue of $40 million. The release of the costs prompts questioning over the grand prix’s worth each year. And when the grand prix is forced to share the spotlight with the likes of the AFL, so entrenched in the local community, the one-off event can be questioned and excused away.

The Adelaide 500 is facing similar pressure. And, as with the Australian Grand Prix, is pitted directly against local events in the shape of the Fringe and Festival of Arts.

Sadly, the Australian Grand Prix no longer seems allowed to stand on its own. It’s increasingly viewed through the prism of Australian sports, rather than embraced for its internationalism.

An Australian Grand Prix AFL ambassador is appointed to help spruik the event, FOX Sports Australia used retired AFL and NRL players in their promotions for the race and cricketer Adam Gilchrist inexplicably co-hosted Ten Network’s coverage.

Cross promotions between the Australian Grand Prix and AFL have become commonplace. But while the AFL doesn’t need the presence of the grand prix to boost its season opener, the Australian Grand Prix could do with the boost of a move away from the AFL season opener.

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