Australian Grand Prix promoter Ron Walker insists the future of his event is secure beyond its current 2015 deal, despite ongoing speculation suggesting Bernie Ecclestone could pull the plug on the race.
Questions about the future of Albert Park have been intense ever since Melbourne's Lord Mayor Robert Doyle spoke out earlier this year against the high costs of putting on the race. His comments did not go down well with Ecclestone, who has said several times since then that if Australia does not want its race then he will not hesitate to drop it from the calendar.
But with the Lord Mayor having now thrown his weight behind the race, and even appearing at a promotional event that took place with a two-seater car in downtown Melbourne on Tuesday morning, Walker says he is fully confident about the city's F1 future.
"I think it is very secure," Walker told AUTOSPORT about the event's future beyond 2015. "There is a five-year option there that goes either way, and Mr. Ecclestone recognizes that this is a great city to come to.
"It is like Montreal – they lost it, and then they turned around and wanted to get it back. It [F1] is one of these things that advertises the city on free-to-air television... It is an amazing sport to help publicize the city."
Walker and local government representatives are putting together an official economic impact study to show the benefits of hosting the race, which he believes is well in excess of $160 million Australian ($162m U.S.) per year. Although Ecclestone has reiterated his belief that Melbourne's future cannot be guaranteed, Walker sees nothing unusual in the F1 commercial boss's comments, and thinks it is just his way of making sure that Melbourne makes it clear it wants to keep the race.
"I would say the same thing if I was him. If you have the mayor of a capital city criticizing the race and saying we don't really need it as it is too costly, I would turn around and say: 'Well, I'll give it to President Putin, or to the prime minister of India, or Korea.' The mayor of New York wants one for Staten Island. So that is what I would be saying – Bernie doesn't want a race to come to a capital city where it is unwelcome."
As evidence of his belief about the long-term viability of the Melbourne race, Walker has also revealed that he plans to speak to the Victoria government in the next few weeks to evaluate the possibility of switching the race to a permanent facility near Avalon Airport.
"Now that Mr. Ecclestone has raised the issue again, maybe we might go to Avalon and look at the plans. It is a lot of money to build it, but then again the government has $1 billion invested in the Tennis Centre. If you take the interest rate of that, it is slightly more than the grand prix costs. So, there are various ways of cutting the cat.
"It would take about three years to build, and the decision would have to be made next year. Or, as part of the new contract from 2015 going forward... It is something that we will raise with the government very soon after the race."
Lord Mayor Doyle, who will now attend this weekend's opening round of the F1 championship despite having said a few weeks ago that he would not, also clarified his position about the event. He said that no thought was being given for Melbourne to try and get out of its current deal.
"This is an event for Melbourne, and if something is good for Melbourne then I am for that," he said in front of Melbourne's Town Hall on Tuesday. "The grand prix certainly brings excitement to Melbourne. The question of the license fee is a question for another day, and I am here because any event that is good for Melbourne is an event that I will support."
When asked if he felt the race had a future in Melbourne beyond 2015, he said: "I think that is a question for a different time. Those conversations will happen when the license fee renewal rolls around again. For the moment it is here. It is here until 2015 and my view is that we have got to get behind it while it is here. If it is good for the city of Melbourne, then I am behind it."
The Lord Mayor also said that he did not regret having spoken out against the race earlier this year.
"No, I don't regret making those comments," he said. "Healthy debate is healthy but at the same time this is a major pillar event in our city, and therefore I want to see it work. I want to see the best grand prix in the world here in Melbourne."
• Click here to read the extended interview with Ron Walker.