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On the eve of this year's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Bernie Ecclestone has delivered perhaps his biggest-ever threat that the race could be scrapped from the calendar. Indeed, it could go as soon as next year if Ecclestone and Australian decision makers don't see eye-to-eye and, for once, this isn't a throwaway threat from the F1 boss. It is very, very real.
Formula One is facing a huge crisis which is being well covered up to say the least. It is not a crisis for Ecclestone's business, far from it. Instead, it is a crisis for the fans and perhaps the direction that the sport is taking.
It all starts with the number of races being capped at 20 and Ecclestone says it won't increase beyond this. If it wasn't for the cancellation of Bahrain there would be 20 races this year which could cause a problem in 2012 when Austin joins the calendar. Two years later F1 will go to Russia and there has been talk in recent months of South Africa and even the Ukraine wanting to host a race. If the calendar is capped at 20 races then some are going to have to go to make way for the new arrivals and this may leave some fans more than a little upset.
Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt met Ecclestone for lunch last week and, writing in the Express newspaper, he quotes the F1 boss admitting that "we are probably going to have to drop two races to fit in Austin and Russia." Ecclestone adds that Australia is likely to be dropped because its decision makers "are saying they don't want a race."
Last year the race, which is held in Melbourne's Albert Park, lost $49.4m AUD (£29.5m) and it has prompted the city's mayor to question its value for money. It's not the best way to go about things if a country wants to keep its race.
"If Australia want to go they can go and the next one is maybe one of the races in Spain," adds Ecclestone. Since 2008 there have been F1 races in Barcelona and Valencia but Ecclestone says "we will have to have only one race per country in future. We are alternating in Germany so maybe that's what we will do in Spain."
Fans are not likely to bemoan the loss of one of the Spanish races but the cancellation of Australia could be another matter entirely. The contract to host the race in Melbourne expires after the 2015 event but Ecclestone's comments indicate that if the powers that be in Australia want to get out early then he won't stop them.
One country which isn't at risk, surprisingly, is India. The inaugural race is due to take place in October and it doesn't look like its organisers are planning to repeat the debacle of South Korea where the circuit was only ready a matter of days before it hosted its first GP last year. "India is very much on track and they are going to do a good job," says Ecclestone.
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