Coronavirus: Australian Grand Prix called off

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By Andrew Benson -Chief F1 writer- BcOMBC.

The Australian Grand Prix is the second race to be called off over coronavirus concerns

The Australian Grand Prix has been called off after teams and drivers forced the hand of Formula 1’s bosses.

A decision to cancel the race was made in the early hours of Friday morning after a McLaren team member tested positive for the coronavirus in Melbourne.

The race’s abandonment was not made official for another eight hours.

By that time Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen had flown home.

And McLaren said later on Friday that 14 further team members had been placed in quarantine in their hotel for the next 14 days because of their close contact with the infected employee.

The decision throws into doubt the rest of the F1 season, with the Bahrain Grand Prix due to take place next weekend without spectators the next race to come under scrutiny.

BBC Sport understands Ferrari were the first team to make it clear they were not prepared to race in Melbourne in the circumstances.

Confirmation of the abandonment in from the FIA and F1 came after Mercedes sent a letter requesting the cancellation of the race.

Mercedes said: “We share the disappointment of the sport’s fans that this race cannot go ahead as planned. However, the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our team members and of the wider F1 community are our absolute priority.

“In light of the force majeure events we are experiencing with regards to the coronavirus pandemic, we no longer feel the safety of our employees can be guaranteed if we continue to take part in the event.

“If organisers try to press ahead with the weekend it appears at this stage as if not all the teams will take part.”

The statement cancelling the race said a majority of teams suggested overnight they felt the race should not go ahead.

Events developed rapidly following McLaren’s decision to pull out of the race after their team member’s positive coronavirus test.

On Friday morning, with a statement cancelling the race still not forthcoming, Australian GP organisers initially told local media the race was going ahead as planned.

‘It’s a joke’: fan anger as Australian GP cancelled due to coronavirus fears

But Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews then announced if the race went ahead it would be without spectators.

Legal complications delayed the announcement of the cancellation but the farcical situation will be seen by many to have damaged the reputations of both the F1 and the FIA.

World champion Lewis Hamilton said on Thursday at the official F1 news conference he was “very, very surprised” the sport was pressing on with plans to continue with the race while the outbreak of the virus worsened and other sports suspended or cancelled events.

An initial meeting of team bosses with F1 and FIA officials on Thursday night, after a tense day in the paddock at Albert Park, broke up with an agreement to carry on with Friday practice as normal and review the situation later that day.

But the plans changed later in the evening as several insiders – including leading drivers – expressed their concerns about the idea of racing amid the risk of further cases of coronavirus in the tight-knit F1 paddock.

The decision was reviewed at later meetings and eventually, at around 0200 Friday local time (1500 GMT on Thursday), the decision was made to call the race off.

After that, Vettel and Raikkonen flew back to Europe on the same flight although Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas remain in Melbourne.

Many F1 team members woke up thinking the race was going ahead, only to read news of its cancellation.

On Friday morning, a senior source reconfirmed to BBC Sport, which first reported the information, that the race was still off.

But in farcical scenes, crowds flocked to Albert Park expecting to see the cars out on track and organisers initially told Australian media that the race weekend was going ahead as planned.

In total, eight F1 workers have been assessed and tested for Covid-19.

Seven were cleared on Thursday but an eighth, from McLaren, tested positive.

Australian Grand Prix organisers said in a statement a ninth person had been assessed and tested, with the result pending. This person was “not associated with any F1 team, the FIA or associated suppliers”, the statement said.

It now seems certain a huge question mark will hang over the Bahrain Grand Prix, scheduled to be the second meeting of the season on 22 March.

A decision is also expected imminently on the Vietnam Grand Prix, scheduled for 5 April, after the government in Hanoi banned travel into the country for anyone who has been in Italy – among other locations – in the previous 14 days.

F1 chief executive Chase Carey was in Hanoi on Thursday trying to find a way around the restrictions.

The Chinese Grand Prix, scheduled to be the fourth race, was postponed in February after government officials said it could not go ahead.

The next race after Vietnam is scheduled to be the Dutch Grand Prix on 5 May, the start of a run of three races in four weekends that also includes the Spanish and Monaco events.

But with the coronavirus situation developing by the day, and countries imposing tighter restrictions on travel, it is impossible to know at this stage whether any of those races can go ahead.

Analysis

The decision to cancel the race in Australia raises huge questions about the future of the sport this year.

F1 authorities faced criticism for their decision to press ahead with the season-opening race, and it is true the teams feel they lacked direction and leadership from the powers that be.

But the FIA and F1 were responding to advice from local authorities, with Australian officials saying earlier in the week they saw no reason for their race not to go ahead.

The fact it has now been called off is an illustration of the speed with which the coronavirus pandemic has developed across the globe.

But it also shines a spotlight on what some will see as the F1 authorities having rather too firm a focus on ‘keeping the show on the road’ – as well as the dollars rolling in – and not enough on the realities of what really matters.

Now, not only does the sport not know when – or even if – the season can start, but the authorities, teams and race promoters have to face the question of what happens to all the fees that have been paid for races that might now never happen.

The answer to that may well be different for separate events, and it will depend on who has made this decision, who pays for the race in each specific country, and the legal and contractual complexities of each deal.

In addition, there are the knock-on effects for the teams themselves, as a large proportion of their income comes from those race fees.

Some teams need that income more than others – and some need it very much indeed.

F1 is entering uncharted waters, and to describe them as choppy could be a massive understatement.

 

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