How Netflix and a 1,000-day hiatus changed a nation’s mindset around Formula One and the Australian Grand Prix

MELBOURNE, Australia — The sullen look splashed across the sleep-deprived face of Australian Grand Prix Corporation chief Andrew Westacott confirmed what every person at Albert Park had been expecting. Flanked by Formula One CEO Chase Carey and AGPC chairman Paul Little, Westacott nervously swallowed, before raising a microphone to his lips to deliver the news.

Thirty minutes later, the dreaded confirmation began trickling down to the hordes of fans decked in Mercedes silver and Ferrari red, stationed at the half dozen entrances dotted around Melbourne’s most pristine lake. “The AGPC has been advised by Formula One that the Australian Grand Prix has been cancelled,” brave race officials bellowed into megaphones.

Unsurprisingly, the announcement was met with a chorus of boos, aggressive cursing and sarcastic remarks. “You could have f—ing told us earlier,” one disgruntled, hopeful racegoer barked back. Instead of consuming their annual 100 minutes of live, high-octane motor racing, each and every spectator was forced to make a U-turn and head home; all without ever setting foot inside the Albert Park precinct.

The 11th-hour cancellation of the 2020 Australian Grand Prix was a decision nobody wanted to make, but one which was effectively forced upon race organisers and the FIA the moment McLaren withdrew from the event, following a team member returning a positive COVID-19 test.

But it wasn’t the cancellation of the race which had irked fans. Instead, it was the way in which it was communicated to them. The ticket holders, those who had parted with their hard earned cash, many of which had been queuing at the gates for hours, seemed to be the last to learn the news. As thousands of aggravated fans, still in utter disbelief, vacated Albert Park, and team personnel began packing up garages, you couldn’t help but feel Formula One in Melbourne was at its lowest point. And that’s saying something.

EVER SINCE the Australian Grand Prix moved from Adelaide to Albert Park in 1996, there have been constant calls for the race to be axed. Many used to argue the four-day event was not only a waste of taxpayer funds but also a misuse of public space for the benefit of commercial interests.

“Locals have never embraced the grand prix,” Save Albert Park president Peter Goad told ESPN, ahead of the eventually abandoned 2020 edition. “It’s an event which totally disrupts the entire city and the government has been lying about everything from the costs involved to the benefits Melbourne receives from it for years.

“When it started 25 years ago, they said it would not cost taxpayers a cent. Well we’ve already spent over AU$1 billion on it. It’s an absolute waste of money and, economically, no other sporting event, or any event, comes close in terms of consistently throwing money down the drain.”

In 2019, the last time a grid was formed in Melbourne, the cost of hosting the Australian Grand Prix was AU$115 million — a figure which covers everything from the race licensing fee to the grandstand construction and deconstruction costs. However, only AU$55 million was returned in sponsorship, ticket sales and merchandise revenue, meaning the Victorian government needed to tip in AU$60 million in order to reach breakeven, and for the event to be considered somewhat viable.

While the associated costs and financial shortfall have historically been astronomical, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews argues the state nets an impressive AU$40 million economic benefit — tourism spikes, international media exposure and consumer surplus — each year from hosting the race. However, consultants Economists at Large concluded in 2012 that such an economic benefit would realistically be valued around the AU$5 million mark.

“I like the grand prix, I go to the grand prix, but then again I like Ferraris and don’t have one because it’s too expensive,” said former Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, in 2011.

Such figures, combined with a lack of transparency from event organisers and the government, left many Melburnians feeling disdain towards Formula One and the Australian Grand Prix. The fact it’s hitting them all in the hip pocket, yet, for many, there’s been no clear and obvious benefit, has been the primary sticking point for years. Naturally, if you were paying for something you weren’t using, you’d probably begin questioning it, too.

For many, that frustration is compounded when you add in the fact that a Formula One race weekend staged on a temporary track situated just three kilometres from a major city’s CBD comes with extreme noise, road closures, traffic congestion and hiked prices.

THE AUSTRALIAN Open is the only annual Australian sporting event which costs more to stage than the grand prix. The year’s first tennis Grand Slam, held just a short drive from Albert Park, sees Melbourne transform itself into a tennis Mecca, welcoming thousands of fans from Australia and around the world for the two-week event. But one of the most noticable differences between Melbourne’s two greatest sporting events is that you almost never here a local complain about the tennis.

Over the past two decades, Tennis Australia has worked tirelessly to ensure the Australian Open appeals to a wider audience and is as inclusive as possible. Today, the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific is the Southern Hemisphere’s premier sporting event and its appeal stretches far wider than simply what’s happening on court.

The Melbourne Park experience is equally about the five-star culinary delights, social mingling in Garden Square with an Aperol Spritz in hand, and, of course, the nightly musical performances at picturesque Birrarung Marr. It’s essentially a not-to-be-missed two-week festival, centred around a tennis tournament.

“About seven years ago we decided we wanted to shift the paradigm,” Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley told ESPN. “We made a decision to become a global event which focuses on sport as well as the entertainment. We really wanted to change our demographic and make it younger, and make it appeal to a new fanbase.

“It’s so critical to continue evolving. Now we can have parents enjoying the culinary experiences and kids in the ballpark. Making this change was a major milestone for the event.”

Offering a product which appeals to a wider audience is where, historically, the Australian Open has drastically differed from the Australian Grand Prix. A race weekend at Albert Park will always excite motorsport fans, but grand prix organisers have failed to deliver much which would pique the interest of a broader, more diverse audience.

There are support categories during grand prix weekend, but let’s be honest, nobody’s primary reason for purchasing a ticket is for Supercars or the Porsche Carrera Cup. Formula One is the main attraction and nothing else comes remotely close to matching it.

“If you’re a motorsport fan, you’ll always be revved up [for the grand prix] but one of the biggest issues has been a lot of people simply aren’t into it,” Goad told ESPN.

Since Tennis Australia pivoted early last decade, the Australian Open’s attendance has grown by 55 percent. The event has also managed to surpass Wimbledon and the US Open to become the world’s highest attended tennis tournament. In the same period, the Australian Grand Prix has regressed, falling 10 percent in attendance. Only once between 2015 and 2019 has the total weekend spectator number hit the 300,000 mark, something which was commonplace in the decade which preceded it.

MANY MELBURNIANS likely didn’t realise it at the time but a mindset shift around Formula One and the Australian Grand Prix was imminent.

“We were quite strong in the traditional market, with an average age of people, mainly men between 40 and 55 [years old],” F1 chief Stefano Domenicali explained at the 2022 SportNXT summit in Melbourne. “But we needed to change the language, and do it without being disrespectful of our traditional fans.”

On the eve of the 2019 season, Netflix, in partnership with Formula One, released the first series of Drive to Survive, a docuseries providing intimate and exclusive access to what goes on behind the scenes of the world’s fastest sport. The inaugural series focused on the many dramatic aspects of F1, including teammate rivalries, managing engine suppliers, fighting for contracts and, of course, some of the prior year’s major accidents.

Its reception was a raging success.

“People are going from ‘I’ve never watched a Formula One race in my life’ to ‘I’ll never miss a Formula One race again,'” noted McLaren chief Zak Brown.

Season two was released 12 months later, almost synchronised with the time in which the word ‘coronavirus’ had seamlessly become part of our everyday vernacular. Several weeks later, the 2020 Australian Grand Prix was abandoned and any momentum Formula One had gained appeared to have ground to a halt.

The race in Melbourne may have been one of the first major sporting events impacted by COVID-19, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. The Olympic Games was postponed 12 months, the NBA forced into a ‘bubble’, major tennis and golf events scrapped altogether and F1’s season suspended. In Australia, the nation’s two biggest football leagues, the AFL and NRL, were shut down for months.

As the pandemic began wreaking havoc around the globe, many cities started to impose lockdowns. Millions were left unemployed and stranded at home with little to occupy their time. So what do many of us do in such a situation? Binge watch a new TV series.

The world has changed dramatically over the past 24 months. The vast majority of the population is now fully vaccinated, mask mandates have been dropped and airports reopened. We’ve seen employment pick up and major events are back in full swing. But the other noticable change has been the mindset around Formula One.

Four seasons of Drive to Survive have now been released, consumed and thoroughly enjoyed. By highlighting everything from the financial tightrope teams are forced to walk to the logistical burden of criss-crossing the globe, the notion that Formula One was simply cars ambling around in a circle had been quashed forever. The series opened eyes and unlocked new fanbases all around the world.

“I guess I just never really understood the sport,” one Albert Park racegoer tells ESPN. “A lot of people probably found it a bit boring and didn’t really understand what was going on [but] once you learn the stories behind the drivers and what’s actually happening, it definitely changes your perspective.”

Formula One’s global TV viewership reached an all-time high last year with 1.55 billion people tuning in to watch what turned out to be one of the most gripping seasons in recent history. Formula One has also become social media’s fastest-growing major sports league on the planet. F1 currently has over 50 million total followers across its platforms, and, over the past 12 months, has seen the highest engagement rate with social posts compared to other major sports.

WHEN THE 20 Formula One cars trundle down the Albert Park pit-lane on Friday afternoon, and begin dancing around the 5.303km temporary street circuit for the first time in 1,119 days, it will signal a new era for the sport Down Under.

Those calling for the race to be axed have been drowned out by a new legion of passionate fans, many eager for their first live glimpse of a Formula One car. When you combine that with the existing fanbase who have been starved of a home grand prix for the better part of three years, and the fact there’s been a genuine growing sense among locals that the race has long been taken for granted — highlighted by the noticable void many felt when it was taken away over the last two years — it comes as no surprise the 2022 event is a complete sellout.

“Ticket sales are massively up by about 25 percent,” said Westacott on the eve of the event. “Think about your favourite rock band who haven’t toured for three or four years and you want to get along to see them. We are going to be nudging 125,000 to 130,000, not only the Sunday but the Saturday of the event.”

Formula One public relations released a statement after a busier-than-usual Thursday at the track, saying that 410,000 fans are expected to pour through the gates this weekend (Friday to Sunday), which would make the 2022 Australian Grand Prix the highest attended sporting event — in combined figures over three days — in Australian sporting history.

A major metric race organisers are now using to determine the success of an event is the percentage of female ticket holders. In 2019, just one in four attendees were female, whereas this year females account for 40 percent of ticket sales.

The AGPC may not have had a race to stage in three years, but that doesn’t mean the organisation has been resting on its laurels. Instead, it’s taken a leaf out of the Australian Open’s playbook, and made a conscious effort to provide 2022’s fans with a more well-rounded experience.

This year we will see the inaugural staging of AusGP Sessions – a four-day line-up of live music, while the event’s food and beverage offering has also been given a revamp. M-Lane, a precinct located inside the track, will feature items from some of Melbourne’s most iconic restaurants and bars, while four other regional precincts have been constructed around the track. How very Australian Open.

All things considered, it’s a staggering transformation and a far cry from the dreary Australian Grand Prix scenes of 2020.

Goad’s belief that “if the Australian Grand Prix left Melbourne, it wouldn’t be missed,” was once a sentiment many Victorians echoed. But the culmination of Drive to Survive, a three-year hiatus and a refreshed program has Albert Park buzzing in a way it’s never been before.