MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Australian Grand Prix is "probably" the least economically viable in the Formula One calendar, and is unlikely to continue if Melbourne loses its appetite to fit the bill for the race, according to commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
Melbourne has hosting rights until 2015, but the rising cost of holding the race has fuelled growing calls for the state government of Victoria to ditch the race.
From reporting a loss of less than A$2 million ($2.14 million) in the first Grand Prix at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit in 1996, taxpayers now pay more than $50 million, with the costs expected to rise further in coming years.
The Liberal government has nonetheless thrown its support behind it, saying they want to keep it beyond 2015, citing its promotional value to Australia's second city.
Ecclestone said if Melbourne could not afford the race, it was unlikely any other Australian city could.
"If we were having a divorce from our friends in Melbourne, we would probably be walking away from Australia," Ecclestone said in comments published by local media on Thursday.
"Because I can't see how Adelaide could make it happen, or anywhere else, if Melbourne can't," he said, referring to the South Australian state capital, the Grand Prix's inaugural venue.
"The race itself, is probably the least viable of all the races we have."
While Ecclestone has said he wants the race to remain in Melbourne, he has threatened to take it elsewhere should local officials try to negotiate lower license fees that are estimated to cost between $20-30 million a year.
He has also complained about the timezone being unfriendly for European broadcasters and reiterated his call for Melbourne to turn it into a night race, like the Singapore Grand Prix, despite drivers' safety concerns.
"We would have a look, maybe we could help subsidise that a little bit," he said.
"Up until 2015, we're in good shape. After then, I really don't know."
The Australian Grand Prix opens the F1 season on March 18.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Greg Stutchbury