It's late February, which, for about the last two decades, has meant two things. The first is that teams are quietly moving from pre-season testing in to pre-season panic as the first race of the season approaches, while in Melbourne it means opposition to the Australian Grand Prix is quietly gathering a head of steam ready for its annual vent.
Ever since Melbourne secured the Grand Prix for 1997* it has been the subject of intense debate. Those who support it cite the economic benefit and other intangibles, like tourism exposure and brand building, while its detractors argue the intrusion to their daily lives in the weeks ahead of the event are simply intolerable.
The problem Melbourne faces is that the Albert Park circuit is nestled within the inner suburbs, walking distance from the city (stumbling distance from the Crown Casino) and a leisurely stroll from the picturesque St Kilda beach. The location was no accident, organisers carefully selecting the site as it shows off the best of Melbourne to an international television audience. The same cannot be said for the Docklands area, which was a proposed alternate location for the track.
As a street circuit there is naturally disruption to many locals. Roads are closed as construction commences which forces traffic congestion around the circuit, aggravating those inconvenienced. Furthermore there is a growing opinion within Melbourne that the roads are beginning to fall behind the traffic they're being asked to support, so the closure of a number of roads around Albert Park for a few weeks a year highlights an issue which is already quietly bubbling just below the surface. The grand prix is the easy scapegoat for a far more complicated issue in that respect.
Then there are those who argue that as a public asset Albert Park should not even be used for the event, and that the intrusion robs locals of its use, and that it takes a good part of the year to recover from the grand prix weekend. What they neglect to mention is the £27million worth of investment the park received in the mid-1990s for the race in the first place.
Melbourne lured the race from Adelaide as a way to boost local morale. Australia had gone in to a recession in the late 1980s which in Victoria translated in to the collapse of its state bank along with a number of other institutions. When Jeff Kennett became Premier in 1992 he set about rebuilding the state, with the grand prix his way of giving the down-and-out Victorians something to be proud of. Kennett agreed to underwrite the event, which has seen the Victorian tax payers covering a long line of losses made by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation.
But it's at this time of year that the event goes under the microscope more than any other. Locals will be up in arms and it will be used as a political weapon by the Victorian opposition party looking to score cheap points with voters, all at a time when a new contract is being negotiated.
The current deal will take the race until 2015 after which the Victorian Government wants to see a better deal for its tax payers. That probably means something better than the £19million it will likely pay in hosting fees by 2015 when the current deal ends. While there is no certainty over whether the race will remain in Australia beyond its current agreement there is no doubt debate over the grand prix, and its value, will continue among Victorians whatever happens.
* When signing its contract with Bernie Ecclestone in 1993, Victoria was scheduled to host its first race in 1997. For a time it was suggested Melbourne could host a Pacific Grand Prix in 1996 before economic pressure saw Adelaide release the race a year early.