Our report was written the day after the Australian F1 Grand Prix was cancelled, due to issues with our website we have only been able to publish this today, its 11 days since the race meeting was cancelled and so much has happened in the time, with Motorsport and the world in general. Stay safe everyone.
The cancellation of the 2020 Australian Formula One Grand Prix was not an isolated problem for Formula One, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, the paying public and the various levels of Government in Australia. It was quite literally the tip of an immense iceberg that threatens to derail 2020 not only for the motorsport colossus but the entire world. Such is the spread of the disease and the ensuing pandemonium that no-one can predict, with any degree of certainty, what measures governments across the globe will enforce in 24 hours, let alone in a week or more.
The progress and impact of the disease has been exponential. From late 2019, when the disease was first identified, to February 2020 it was largely confined to China. In a matter of weeks it spread to most continents across the globe with more than 162,000 confirmed cases of the COVI-19 virus as at 9am March 16,2020. Congruent with the rapid escalation of the pandemic uncertainty, ignorance and fear ran rampant.
Embroiled in an ongoing debate as to the logic in their endeavour to stage the opening race of the 2020 Formula One season amidst such a period of increasing uncertainty, Liberty Media (the owners of Formula One) and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation have come under sustained attack from those both in favour and against their efforts to stage the event.
Opponents, which reportedly included some high profile members of the F1’s elite, questioned the sanity of a decision that saw the F1 circus descend upon Albert Park on the eve of the event. Conversely, those in favour of the race have questioned why the event had been cancelled after just one case had been confirmed of a virus that had been described by some sources as little more than a “bad case of the flu.”
The COVID-19 virus, or coronavirus as it has been commonly called, can range from a mild sore throat and runny nose, to a cough with varying levels of respiratory distress in the more severe cases. Most significantly, recognisable symptoms of the illness may not appear for up to 14 days after exposure to the virus. The spread of the disease had been linked to contaminated vapour droplets spread from person to person directly. More recent research has demonstrated the virus’ ability to remain active on surfaces through infected droplets which are then transmitted via contact from hand to the face and respiratory passages. The virus is susceptible to the Ph levels contained in most soaps and hands washes, while hand sanitises with a 60% concentration of alcohol were also effective in eradicating the virus. Preventative measures such as covering the mouth when coughing and the regular washing of hands with soap or sanitiser were listed as highly effective containment measures. The classification of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation has seen social isolation listed as the preferred preventative for those who had been potentially exposed to the virus and were at risk of contamination.
The COVID-19 virus had been elevated to the pandemic level by the World Health Organisation due to the rapid spread of the virus as opposed to the virulence of the disease. A ‘pandemic’ by definition is a disease that spreads across multiple borders within a concurrent time sequence.
Moto GP had already cancelled the opening Qatar round of the 2020 World Championship for the Premier class (the Moto 2 and Moto 3 races went ahead as teams had ben testing at the venue the preceding week) and Formula E postponed the start to their season. Formula One wrestled with the developing problems as the disease spread from the original source of the outbreak in the Wuhan, Hubei Province in late 2019.
As the Formula One community assembled in Barcelona for their six day test, Italy confirmed its first case of COVID-19. In just over a week the country had been overrun by the virus, with 4,000 confirmed cases and 12 deaths. Eleven cities were placed in lockdown with the regions of Lombardy and Veneto in the north of the country recording the highest infection rate outside China.
It was this outbreak that first threatened the 25th running of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. As neighbouring European countries limited the movements of their Italian counterparts, Australia’s borders remained open. The decision to push ahead with the Grand Prix was made after the Australian Grand Prix Corporation had consulted with the Victorian and national chief health officers, the Australian Health Protection principal committee, the FIA and Liberty Media on a daily basis.
“Travellers will be asked mandatory questions at check-in and anyone failing those checks will be denied approval to board,” Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison said of the impending arrival of the Italian based Formula One teams. “If anyone gets sick on board, biosecurity and health will meet the plane and manage those people directly. On arrival, travellers will not be able to use the smart gates. They will have to be dealt with directly by an officer.”
Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton explained the state of the pandemic to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell on 25 February 2020. “I think we have to keep all options open,” but said “Cancellation was unlikely. If it’s a very mild pandemic, like the 2009 flu pandemic, then you don’t need really significant action. But if it’s severe and we need to do absolutely everything possible to reduce the peak, reduce the number of cases, then we have to keep all options open. I think we keep it under review but these huge events are planned for months and months in advance and I think it would take some extraordinary activity of the coronavirus in Australia to cancel something like this at this stage.”
“I think it’s almost certain to go ahead,” Sutton added. “It’s a huge economic boost to the country and people are harmed by economic constraints as well, so we have the bear that in mind.
Victorian government minister Martin Foley said at the same time that is was far too early to tell what impact, if any, the virus outbreak would have on the grand prix. “The advice that the grand prix corporation and all our other international sporting codes are taking is being informed every day by the world’s best advice,” Foley said.“At the moment that stands as is, everybody should go about their normal processes.”
Motorsport Australia were also proactive and instituted a number of measures to protect the general public, officials and race teams from possible contamination. Hand sanitation points were placed throughout the precinct as well as public information signage. Quarantine facilities were established on-site to deal immediately with any potential case. Officials were also advised via a newsletter to refrain from unnecessary contact and to self isolate should they develop any symptoms.
Just one week prior to the Grand Prix, Melbourne hosted the final of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup with an audience in excess of 86,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with no reported cases of COVID-19 contamination. As the number of cases across Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, France, the United States and Switzerland all climbed above 1,000, Australia had reported less than two hundred cases, with only a minimal number linked to secondary infection for someone else who had arrived in Australia from overseas.
John Daley, CEO of the Grattan Institute expressed concern that the influx of team members to the Albert Park precinct may transmit the disease without apparent symptoms, which could lead to a rapid escalation of the virus. “The risk that we are running is that someone gets off a plane, quite possibly going to the grand prix,” he said. “We don’t catch the fact that they’ve got this virus, they wind up giving it to people they come into contact with at the grand prix. That becomes obvious some five or 10 days later and by then we’re in a world in which there is substantial community transmission in Australia.”
The successful completion of the World Cup final, with no reported transmissions of the virus, led to a renewed optimism as race teams began to arrive early to acclimatise to Australia’s time zone and climate. While race organisers, the FIA and Liberty Media were in constant communication with World and National Health organisations regarding the COVID-19 virus, many F1 personnel, including drivers struggled to understand the nature of the virus, including the severity of the disease within Victoria and the associated safety measures that should be followed.
Lewis Hamilton queried the decision to hold the Grand Prix during the Thursday afternoon driver press conference and expressed his surprise that the teams had made their way to Albert Park in light of the pandemic. He later quipped “Cash is king” when asked why preparations for the race had continued, then added quickly. ”Honestly, I don’t know. ”I can’t really add much more to it, I don’t feel like I should shy away from the fact of my opinion.”
McLaren driver Carlos Sainz told Reuters that the drivers were confused as to whether they would be safe to be out and about in Melbourne. “We are obviously concerned with the situation but we are drivers and we don’t really understand what is exactly going on worldwide, if its safe to do it in Australia or Vietnam or whatever,” Sainz said. “We are not miracle people, we are not governments and unfortunately we need to rely a bit on what others tell us. Everyone knows how quickly this thing is developing. Only time will tell if this is the right or the wrong thing to do. I am concerned, I think like everyone else in the paddock. But at the same time, at the moment, in my personal situation, I am in a comfortable situation.”
Ironically, it was a member of Sainz’s McLaren team, rumoured to have travelled to Australia from the relative safety of the UK who visited a quarantine station with cold like symptoms. A further 7 members of the Haas organisation, who had boarded flights from the United States of America did likewise a short time later. While the Haas personnel were later cleared of the virus, the McLaren staffer was confirmed to have the COVID-19 strain.
Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton’s position on the race had changed. He warned earlier in the day that a positive test result might stop the race from being held. “If (the tests) turn up positive, we need to consider what it means for their close contacts and if they have a number of close contacts across a number of crews, then those individuals need to be quarantined,” Sutton told Melbourne radio station 3AW on Thursday. “If that effectively shuts down the race, then so be it. We’ll make that call.”
Confirmation of the positive result for the McLaren employee had an immediate effect on the event. In addition to the infected person a further fourteen members of the team were also placed in isolation, which effectively rendered the team inoperable. The potential ramifications of further cases played heavily on the minds of the remaining teams as McLaren decision to withdraw from the event was issued via a team statement later that evening.
“McLaren Racing has confirmed this evening in Melbourne that it has withdrawn from the 2020 Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, following the positive test of a team member for the coronavirus. The team member was tested and self-isolated as soon as they started to show symptoms and will now be treated by local healthcare authorities. The team has prepared for this eventuality and has ongoing support in place for its employee who will now enter a period of quarantine. The team is cooperating with the relevant local authorities to assist their investigations and analysis.
Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, and Andreas Seidl, Team Principal of McLaren F1, informed Formula 1 and the FIA of the decision this evening. The decision has been taken based on a duty of care not only to McLaren F1 employees and partners, but also to the team’s competitors, Formula 1 fans and wider F1 stakeholders.”
Ross Brawn, Formula One’s managing director of motorsport and technical director worked through the night in a series of crisis meetings with the Formula One teams, the FIA and Liberty Media to determine the implications of the contamination and McLaren withdrawal. A subsequent vote, led by the Italian run Ferrari and Alfa Romeo teams, eventually vetoed the race. The emphasis had shifted from a containment measure to one more akin to a Dunkirk scenario, with teams eager to ship their team and equipment back to the relative safety of the European base.
As one member of the F1 media crew explained early Friday morning, “We just don’t know what is happening,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we have to stay in Australia for another fourteen days, many of us have families that we want to see.”
Ross Brawn later explained the process that took place throughout Thursday evening, from the McLaren announcement through to the decision to cancel the F1 event at 9am on Friday morning.
“There was consultation with the teams, the medical authorities, the FIA and the promoters here,” said Brawn. “I’ve been up all night. We had so many issues to work through. We had to get the teams together again and hold a meeting. We had mapped out with the health authorities what would happen if we had one case, five case, 10 cases, but what you never know with those cases is what the association is with the people around. Having one case with 14 people having to go into isolation, that effectively knocked that team [McLaren] out of operation.
If that one case had been someone with a different profile, different responsibility, it might not have impacted a team that much. There are certain things you can spend forever predicting and you’ll never know what is going to happen. In reality, we found the case, the person who was positive in the paddock. That is the credit to the authorities. They were identified, they were tested, the procedures worked.”
The rumour mill went into overdrive as news outlets reported the demise of the Australian Grand Prix while others announced that the event was set to continue as planned. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen had reportedly left the country on Thursday evening as a number of European countries imposed further restrictions on international travel as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in both France and Germany surged past the 3,000 mark.
The Australian Grand Prix quickly unravelled as the Victorian Government’s stance on the race dramatically changed. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews intervened just moments after Australian grand prix boss Paul Little told Nine Network on Friday morning that the event would go ahead. The FIA and Formula One remained tight lipped about their decision as the myriad of contractural issues and subsequent multi-million dollar payments were to be determined by ‘who did what to whom first.’
Daniel Andrews was the first to respond and spoke to reporters before the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Sydney. He explained that he and AGPC organisers had been given an updated advice from the health department.
“The Chief Health Officer in Victoria has provided revised, updated advice to event organisers this morning where he has indicated they have a choice to make between running no event or an event without spectators,” he said. “On public health grounds, there will be no spectators at the Grand Prix this weekend, if a race actually happens at all.”
Security Staff were instructed to keep the public gates closed while a number of corporate guests, who had arrived hours earlier congregated near their marquee. Track Marshals stood patiently at their point, while a parade of historic racing cars sat silent for thirty minutes at the entry to the circuit.
At approximately 9.50am, Race Control advised all officials to stand down and return the to Marshalling Area for further notice as a fleet of buses moved in to ferry people from the circuit.
A statement was issued a short time later from Formula 1, the FIA and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation which read:
“Following the confirmation that a member of the McLaren Racing Team has tested positive for COVID-19 and the team’s decision to withdraw from the Australian Grand Prix, Formula 1 and the FIA convened a meeting of the other nine team principals on Thursday evening. Those discussions concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead. Formula 1 and the FIA, with the full support of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) have therefore taken the decision that all Formula 1 activity for the Australian Grand Prix are cancelled.
We appreciate this is very disappointing news for the thousands of fans due to attend the race and all ticket holders will receive a full refund and a further announcement will be communicated in due course.
All parties took into consideration the huge efforts of the AGPC, Motorsport Australia, staff and volunteers to stage the opening round of the 2020 FIA Formula One World Championship in Melbourne, however concluded that the safety of all members of the Formula 1 family and the wider community, as well as the fairness of the competition take priority.”
Media sources criticised the 12 hour delay from the McLaren incident to the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, which Ross Brawn later explained.
“It’s not a total autocracy as in we just can’t make a decision,” Brawn said. “We have so many factors to take into account. I think we did a pretty good job of reaching the right conclusion with so many stakeholders involved. We’re talking to the FIA, which is in Europe on a European timezone, and we had to speak to [FIA President] Jean Todt.
“Chase Carey (Formula One CEO) unfortunately was in the air, flying between Vietnam and here. So it was a pretty stressful period. Considering we dealt with everything in 12 hours, for something that important, was good.”
For Chase Carey, the events of Friday morning was yet another setback brought about by the outbreak of COVID-19. Carey had diverted to Vietnam on route to Australia after government officials had altered pre-arranged travel plans. F1 Media sources told Velocity Motorsport magazine that the already approved travel visas had been cancelled by the Vietnamese Government in the wake of the global pandemic. The South East Asian country expressed concerns that the tally of 47 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vietnam would escalate with the expected influx of international visitors.
At 11.30am Carey joined AGPC Chairman Paul Little, CEO Andrew Westacott and Formula One Race Director, Michael Massey to address the media about the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix.
Paul little thanked the public for the patience throughout the events of them morning and apologised for the event’s demise. “To our race fans I’d like to say that we are terribly disappointed that the event can’t go ahead, but the health safety and welfare of the teams and community have to take precedence,” he said. “We look to hopefully being able to run this event at some later stage, we will just have to wait and see,”
“I also want to express our disappointment on behalf of the fans,” Chase Carey added. “It’s a race we always look forward to. It is a very fluid situation, but I believe we made the right decision in conjunction with our partners. I think we are all disappointed not to have it, but these are challenging times.”
When asked what he would say to Hamilton regarding his feelings about the race and the “Cash is king” quip, Carey replied:
“I guess if cash was king, we wouldn’t have made the decision we did today. I’ve sort of addressed it in many different ways, so I can keep saying the same thing. In hindsight, obviously things look different [before F1 travelled to Australia]. There were events that evolved, situations that changed. We made a decision which, given the lead time to come here, hold the event, at a point in time where major events were being held here, with a different situation in the world, The situation changed day to day, in some ways hour to hour.
“Obviously we continued to evaluate that, and make the appropriate decisions going forward. I do think we were trying to digest a lot of different information to make the right decision at the right time, and I think we did that.”
“We are trying to help the Australians to have this wonderful race at a different time. Only we cannot leave the infrastructure forever. We will dismantle it first and then discuss whether the race can take place at a later date,” Carey told Auto, Motor und Sport.
Most teams issued statements of support in the decision to cancel the Australian Grand Prix, while Daniel Ricciardo took to social media to offer his comments.
“I’m devastated I can’t compete at my home GP here in Melbourne & get the season started,” Ricciardo wrote. “Ultimately though the right decision has been made & I think everyone can understand this is something we’ve never seen before. Sorry to all fans who came out for the support. Much love.”
Velocity Motorsport magazine understands that the possibility of returning to Australia for one of the final races of the year had been mentioned during the crisis meeting on Thursday evening.
Formula One’s issues with the 2020 season were further compounded when it was announced that the Bahrain and Vietnam Grand Prix were also postponed.
“Following the announcement of the Australian Grand Prix’s cancellation this week and the ongoing and fluid nature of the COVID-19 situation globally, Formula 1, the FIA and the promoters have taken these decisions in order to ensure the health and safety of the travelling staff, championship participants and fans, which remains our primary concern.
Formula 1 and the FIA continue to work closely with the race promoters in Bahrain and Vietnam and the local authorities to monitor the situation and take the appropriate amount of time to study the viability of potential alternative dates for each Grand Prix later in the year should the situation improve.
Chase Carey was clearly a frustrated man at the conference, not with the barrage of question he received at the press conference, but in his ability to answer them. Formula One has always exercised a tight control over their product and Liberty Media, whilst less autocratic, also exhibits strong leadership of the jewel in their crown. COVID-19 has taken away much of that control for the immediate future as governments respond with tighter travel restrictions, the cancellation of mass gatherings and the push for social isolation in an effort to stop the disease.
“The global situation regarding COVID-19 is fluid and very difficult to predict and its right we take time to assess the situation and make the right decisions,” said Carey. “We are taking this decision with the FIA and our promoters to ensure the safety of everyone involved in Formula 1 and our fans. We continue to rely on the input and advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and governments and will work with them throughout this unpredictable period to safeguard the fans, competitors and all of the motor sport community.”
When asked by a member of the media “Should I book my tickets for Bahrain?” Carey responded by saying “You tell me.”
While some outlets labelled the comment as some form of arrogance from the F1 boss, in reality it demonstrates the frustration of a person accustomed to sitting in the driver’s seat, at the mercy of an infinitesimal creature with no financial means.
The postponement of Bahrain, China and Bahrain elevates the first race status to the Dutch Grand Prix in early May, though some speculation has placed that event as well as the Spanish Grand Prix in some doubt, with 804 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Netherlands and over 5,000 in Spain.
As governments around the world lock down borders, ban large gatherings and encourage voluntary isolation, the current Grand Prix calendar has become largely redundant. The Monaco Grand Prix, Formula One’s jewel in the crown, may well become the opening race of 2020. This too is subject to the ongoing situation regarding the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The full impact on the 2020 Formula One World Championship season will only become known once the virus has been defeated and plans can be made for remains of the year. One thing is assured, the actual 2020 season will look very different to the one we saw at the start of the year.