SYDNEY, March 14, 2012 (AFP / Robert Smith) - The Australian Grand Prix has been a mainstay of Formula One since the 1980s, but a row over night racing is looming as a serious threat to one of the sport's most popular events.
Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone incensed local organisers when he warned Australia was the "least viable" grand prix and could be moved elsewhere, possibly to Asia, unless night racing is introduced to boost viewing figures.
There were reports that 81-year-old Ecclestone had even offered a get-out clause to Australian organisers to cancel the Melbourne race -- which will open the new Formula One season this week -- before its contract expires in 2015.
Negotiations for a new contract are expected to begin late next year or in early 2014 and Ecclestone said with other countries keen to replace Australia, a night race would go a long way to preserving the event.
Ecclestone has been urging organisers for several years to switch to a race under floodlights around the Albert Park street circuit, to suit European television audiences.
Organisers have cited the prohibitive costs of lighting the parkland track, and compromised in 2009 by starting the Melbourne race at 5:00 pm (0600 GMT). But they have refused to follow Singapore's lead and race at night, with organisers "categorically" ruling out a floodlit grand prix in Melbourne.
Australian Grand Prix Corporation chief executive Andrew Westacott said, despite pressure from Ecclestone, the Melbourne event's 5:00 pm timeslot would remain.
"I can categorically say there won't be a night race in Melbourne," Westacott told reporters this month.
Although the Melbourne race is popular with drivers and teams, it runs at a substantial loss for taxpayers in the state of Victoria, where the event has been hotly debated since it switched from Adelaide in 1996.
Last year's grand prix cost Aus$50 million (US$53.6 million) to stage, with at least Aus$25 million of the sum reportedly going to Ecclestone for the right to host the contest.
With estimates of more than Aus$150 million in combined losses over the Melbourne race's history, the state's Major Events Minister Louise Asher has vowed to talk tough when negotiations for a new contract begin.
"When we come to negotiate we will play hardball," she said, adding the current contract was not delivering the best deal for taxpayers.
But Ecclestone continues to insist on a night race, and his unsentimental approach to developing Formula One indicates he should be taken seriously.
France and Turkey have been axed from the calendar and Formula One has aggressively sought new markets, with seven races currently in the Asia-Pacific region and Texas hosting its first this year.
"I wish we could have a night race in Australia," Ecclestone said. "We have other races ready to take the place of Australia, which we don't want to happen."
Despite Ecclestone's threats of taking the race elsewhere, leading drivers are effusive in their praise of Melbourne, where practice will get underway on Friday.
"Australia is one of the best places we go to. It's good to know we're going racing again, I can't wait to get on the flight and get down under," reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel said.
Lewis Hamilton agreed: "The Melbourne crowd lives and breathes it. It's a great place to start the season. A great city with a really positive vibe and a racetrack that's really made for racing."
Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who has won four times in Australia, said: "Melbourne is a perfect location, and the ideal place to start the season.
"The city loves Formula One, the fans create a great atmosphere and obviously, as drivers, we feel that too."