Aus GP attendance row brews down under

Preparations for the season opener at Melbourne in a few weeks time are well underway but behind the scenes a row is brewing over the Grand Prix’s attendance figures.

Operators of the Australian Grand Prix have admitted that they don’t know how many people attend the race, and that tickets they give away free are included in their total attendance count whether or not they are actually used.

A Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) instigated by a freedom of information request from Save Albert Park, a pressure group opposed to the grand prix heard that attendance figures were inflated by thousands of free tickets. One organiser even described the figures as “rubbery”, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Australian Grand Prix Corporation said attendance at last year’s race was 301,000 but acknowledged that a physical count of attendees was never made. The corporation admitted that this figure was an estimate which took into account gross ticket sales and included free give-away tickets.

Visual estimates of crowd numbers were also included in the calculation as were drivers, car mechanics, grid girls, hospitality staff, and even race bosses.

The Save Albert Park group, who do count the number of attendees, have accused the organisers of inflating attendance figures by as much as 45% or 100,000 people.

“What we discovered was a classic ‘smoke and mirrors’ trick, designed to mask the real attendance numbers,” said Keith Wiltshire, the Save Albert Park member who led the VCAT application, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

“The real numbers show the Grand Prix is not nearly as popular as its organisers would have us believe,” he added.

Event organisers justified their decision to include free tickets in the attendance with the following statement:

“If the gross number of free tickets was to be released, this would give the impression that the event was being artificially enhanced by giveaway tickets, and so reduce the value of tickets sold and the likelihood of sponsorship.”

Grand Prix Corporation chief executive Drew Ward also went on record saying that the precise attendance figure needed to remain confidential for commercial reasons.

“This information, if it is provided in the public domain, could be used by our competitors,” he told ABC News citing other cities that are biding against Melbourne to host a Grand Prix. “We would obviously therefore suffer commercial disadvantage,” he added.

Tribunal Judge Marilyn Harbison, who was privately shown the GP’s attendance calculations, eventually ruled in the Grand Prix Corporation’s favour.

“Different considerations may have arisen if the evidence (about the method of calculating GP attendances) revealed the likelihood of a fraudulent difference between the (Grand Prix’s) published and actual figures. However, I do not make such a finding,” she said.

“All I can conclude from the evidence is that (Grand Prix’s) figures are different from (Save Albert Park’s).

“I conclude there is a strong public interest in allowing the (Grand Prix Corporation) to compete effectively in the marketplace.”

The revelations over attendance figures follow increasing pressure on the Victorian State Government to justify the use of taxpayers money to fund an event which continues to run at a loss. The grand prix cost the state about $35 million last year and is expected to cost around $40 million this year.

The government’s license to hold the race expires in 2010 and doubt has been cast over the event’s future beyond that. Earlier in the year F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said that the only chance Melbourne had of hanging onto the race was if organisers agreed to televise the event at night to tie in with European time slots.