Veteran Australian Grand Prix boss Ron Walker will step down after Sunday’s 20th Formula One race at Albert Park with no regrets about his controversial leadership.
Walker, 75, has been chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, which runs the event, for all of its two stormy decades, defying protesters and constant criticism of the cost of the race to taxpayers.
Often divisive and always colourful, the towering cancer survivor admitted that his political background as a high-profile figure in the Liberal Party had been polarising during his unusually long reign as undisputed chief of the Melbourne GP.
“Some people don’t like Ron Walker,” he said during an extended interview discussing his long tenure as chairman of the AGPC. “That’s fine. I know there’s been a degree of hatred. I mean, they expressed that on my fence at home time and time again.
“Some Sunday nights, I’d go home and pour myself a stiff whisky. But it never wore me down.”
Walker also dismissed the ongoing criticism of the annual cost of the Albert Park event, which in recent years has been around $50million, funded by the Victorian government.
“We got used to the hammering,” he shrugged. “To spend $50million advertising the city to hundreds of millions of people in lunch time, it’s cheap. And we’ve been saying this over and over again, and we’ve been comparing it with the tennis, but nobody wants to listen.
“The tennis [Australian Open at Melbourne Park] has cost about $3billion to an audience of 300,000 cable customers.
“So which would you rather have? I’d rather have both.” Although his figures are arguably rubbery, Walker’s passion for the Melbourne GP and his long-standing commitment to securing and keeping the race are undeniable.
“I’m really passionate about Melbourne,” he said. “You have to believe in something. That’s probably why I’ve stayed so long [as AGPC chairman].” He revealed that Melbourne had a secret contract with F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone to inherit the race from Adelaide as far back as 1983.
That agreement was activated when then South Australian premier John Bannon failed in 1992 to take up Adelaide’s option for renewal in 1996, when the race moved to Melbourne.
Walker’s last major achievement was negotiating a more favourable five-year renewal of Victoria’s contract to host the F1 season-opener at Albert Park from 2016, with an option for a further five years.
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