The Australian Grand Prix hosts one of the most entertaining race weekends on the Formula 1 calendar and it just doesn’t happen as a result of a few phone calls.
Months of meticulous planning and attention to detail goes in to create an action-packed Grand Prix weekend, which is always a hit for any fan walking through the Albert Park gates.
RF1 spoke exclusively to Craig Fletcher, the man in charge of making the Australian Grand Prix the spectacle it is today, and discussed his busy role within the Australian Grand Prix.
“We don’t really have an off-season!” Fletcher quips.
“We do two major events for the year [the AGPC also organises the Moto GP round at Phillip Island] and as soon as we come out of Formula 1 we’re into business planning and budgeting for the following financial year. We’ve got a bit of a process to go through with getting our numbers worked out, clarified and formulated within the business.”
The Australian Grand Prix requires the support of the Victorian state government, and they are key stakeholders in this process each year.
“It’s a process of bringing our board in line with what we think we’re doing and then it ultimately needs to go to Government and get approval, and that’s usually a June/July process, so as soon as we come out of Formula 1 we’re into that, but we also need to be straight into getting the Moto GP underway.”
Fletcher’s main role at the Australian Grand Prix is to oversee the entertainment side of the event, both on the track and off. This includes organising the support categories such as the Shannons Historic Demonstration, the Heritage Touring Cars and the Ultimate Speed Comparison.
Although when it comes to off-track events, the crowd at the Australian Grand Prix has been spoiled for choice.
“Some of the activities that we’ve had at the Formula 1 like Crusty Demons and Nitro Circus, we had Tony Hawk last year, have been really successful. So all the off-track entertainment that happens, everything from the pit stop challenges to steel timber sports demonstrations last year, our patrons come back to us every year and say ‘This is amazing, it’s more than just a motorsport event, it’s a whole festival atmosphere.’
“We’ve run the Crusty Demons show which was quite different, but certainly ticks the boxes in terms of adrenaline and extreme sports activity that out patrons like at Formula 1. So it started off with Crusty Demons and the ‘How do we build it within a park environment?’ with adding temporary grandstands around it etc. Then the following year we did the Nitro Circus which was a much bigger build because that goes beyond just motorcycles. It’s got BMX, skating and all of those extras so that was a bigger build again.
“The year after that we had Tony Hawk’s vert jam, which again was a completely different build. We built a massive halfpipe and it was amazing how many people were excited when we mentioned Tony Hawk would be performing. He’s obviously been around for a long time and he’s got a huge following from young kids to adults in their 40s. We certainly try not to repeat things and keep it fresh and all that sort of thing, but there’s always different challenges in those builds, but we were very happy with the result.”
One of the main goals Fletcher has for the Australian Grand Prix is to maintain the festival atmosphere the event has successfully achieved for over a decade, citing Goodwood as one of his biggest influences.
“What Goodwood does is fantastic and they just keep broadening and expanding the range of activities they have. What they can do with aircraft displays and everything, it would be wonderful to have that sort of Goodwood environment that we could lift up and plant in Albert Park!”
As for finding room for improvement on what is already a jam-packed week, the Motorsport and Entertainment Manager would like to explore the option of possibly adding an extra day of activities for the fans.
“Thursday we do all of the practice qualifying. Wednesday track inspections occur with the FIA and all that sort of thing and we do a little bit of two-seater activity on the end of Wednesday. We do some customer drives on the morning of Wednesday so you know whether we could spread that to include a Tuesday, I don’t know. As I say we would need to do a lot of consultation with government and local communities and all that sort of thing to see if we could do it. But it will be great to expand the show.”
Fletcher isn’t a stranger to incorporating new ambitious ideas in order to benefit the fans’ experience. Just this year he and his team introduced the ‘Melbourne Walk’, where drivers were dropped off a little further away from the paddock entrance and made to walk down a road in front of hundreds of F1 fans.
Providing access to the drivers is a hard task for any Formula 1 event, yet something as simple as creating a red carpet style path for the drivers to walk down, signing autographs and engaging with the fans was a massive hit with Formula 1 fanatics, who are used to only seeing a glimpse before the drivers are tucked away in the paddock for the rest of the day.
“We got Formula 1 management to approve and in the consultation with the teams, the teams were a little bit like ‘we do this one day it might be alright but after that I might get out.’ But that was great. They loved it and so that sort of thing we’re always trying to look at how we can get the patrons or the fans closer to the drivers because they are the stars.
“So we’re making inroads into that with Formula 1 now. We’ve got a long way to go before you get the level of engagement I guess at some of the lower profile events but certainly everything outside of Formula 1 we have all that engagement, we have the V8 paddock that we’ve got at Albert Park as open access for all patrons there, all the support categories, all the other off-track entertainment. Formula 1, there’s a little bit of mystique about that but there’s a Formula 1 paddock and you’ve got to be really special to get in there.”
While the Australian Grand Prix is one of the most eventful race weekends on the Formula 1 calendar, the recent addition of the Singapore Grand Prix is doing its best to rival the off-track happenings at Albert Park, with music high on their agenda.
The race has seen concerts by the likes of Katy Perry, Rihanna, The Killers and Jennifer Lopez, however, it’s a case of ‘been there, done that’ for the organisers at the Australian Grand Prix.
“We had Kiss first, and that was very successful because there was a, I guess ‘Kiss Army’ if you like, that wherever Kiss go there’s a dedicated probably 10 or 11,000 people who will come regardless. So that was successful, we had The Who after that, and these were value add-ons, where they weren’t separately ticketed events within the event, they were value added for the customers already there. The costs of those concerts now are escalating dramatically and you don’t really get much change out of one and a half million dollars Australian to get as a base reasonable international act.”
“I’d love to have the budget that Singapore spends on the music acts there, it’s wonderful, but we certainly don’t feel that music is as important to our show. We think with the way Formula 1 is the support motorsport that we have, the other activities we have, we certainly like music to compliment it, but I don’t feel we’re in a position where we need to use triple A-list music acts to draw people to the event because we’re already in that 300,000 people plus who attend.”
Fletcher’s vast experience in event organising and management along with motorsport has been of great value in structuring the on and off-track activities for the Australian Grand Prix.
Working for the Commonwealth Games in 2006, Fletcher was responsible for the delivery of the road events which included the marathon, the triathlon, road race cycling, time trial cycling, walks and mountain biking.
“I think getting probably a couple weeks out from the games time; I was thinking what the hell have I created here? But all the courses that we used in the Melbourne road events had never been used before. So they weren’t, ‘We used that course because we used that before’, these were all brand new courses and so it was blue sky for everything. It was starting from scratch but enormously rewarding, and I’ve got to take my hat off to that. It was a huge undertaking and again Melbourne delivered and proved that their major event capabilities are world class.”
Prior to his event management career, Fletcher developed an interest in motorsports, like most of us, at a young age, paddock bashing dirt bikes with mates during his early years. His aligned his initial interest with motorcycles and started studying to become an automotive engineer, a career choice which would eventually lead him to work alongside Touring Car legend, Peter Brock.
“I developed an interest in motorsport initially for motorcycles and then across car racing as well. I started off as an automotive engineer and mechanic before I was 20 and then I applied for a position with [Peter] Brock’s HTT special vehicles. At that young age to go and work for someone of the profile of Brock was very special and I was pretty lucky to have that position which ultimately led to a long period of my life with Brock.
“He was setting up a special vehicle which was a high-performance road car, which they were building as a limited edition build with Holden so I applied for the position. Jonathan Harvey was managing the assembly of the special vehicles, so went for the interview and got the job. I think I started there six weeks before I got married. I was back at work on Monday [after the wedding] and my wife still reminds me 100 years later we still never had a proper honeymoon!”
We extend our sincerest thanks to the Australian Grand Prix Corporation for their support with this story. To book your Australian Grand Prix tickets, please visit the Australian Grand Prix website.
Images via Red Bull Racing.