THIS WEEKEND’S Australian Grand Prix — the opening round of the 2020 Formula One world championship — has been cancelled due to concerns over coronavirus.
The move was triggered at the last minute following the McLaren team’s decision not to take part, after one its team members tested positive for coronavirus. The employee had self-isolated after showing symptoms. Subsequent tests for Covid-19 proved positive.
“The team was prepared for this eventuality and has ongoing support in place for its employee who will now enter a period of quarantine,” McLaren said in a statement. “The team is cooperating with the relevant local authorities to assist their investigations and analysis.”
McLaren CEO Zak Brown (pictured left) and team principal Andreas Seidl informed Formula 1 and the FIA, motor sport’s governing body, of their decision to withdraw from the race on Thursday evening (Australian time).
“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,” the team’s statement added.
McLaren’s decision put further pressure on F1 management amid growing concerns about whether the race should go ahead during the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier today the race organisers released a statement on Twitter saying they were in discussions with F1, the FIA and the Australian Department of Health and Human Services “in relation to the broader implications of this test result”.
At around 4pm UK time today they announced that the race had been cancelled.
Prior to McLaren’s decision, many had already questioned the business-as-usual approach regarding the opening round of the F1 season.
Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton, speaking to Motorsport.com, said: “I am very, very surprised that we are here. I think it’s great that we have races, but for me it’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this room.
“So many fans here already today and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting […] and F1 continues to go on,” he added.
Earlier in the week, four members of the Haas team were tested for Covid-19 after displaying symptoms, but their tests proved negative. A total of nine people in the paddock, not all of them directly associated the teams, FIA, or suppliers, have been tested for the virus.
On Thursday, F1 announced that ‘bullpen’ driver interviews would be scrapped for the race weekend, to protect drivers and media personnel.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel said he thought the drivers themselves could band together to force the cancellation of the race.
“It is a very, very big decision and ultimately, you look at yourself. And [the drivers] would, I think, be mature enough to look after ourselves and pull the handbrake,” Vettel said.
Despite the apparent hesitation by the authorities, the cancellation of the race had seemed inevitable. When it emerged that Italian teams Ferrari and AlphaTauri might not even be able to travel to Australia due to travel restrictions in and out of Italy, F1’s management made clear that the race would be abandoned if any teams were missing from the grid.
Motor sport in general is being thrown into chaos by the coronavirus pandemic. The organisers of the Bahrain Grand Prix announced last week that the second race of the season, scheduled for 22 March, would be held behind closed doors, without spectators.
The Sebring 12 Hours race in Florida has been cancelled after President Donald Trump announced a ban on flights to the USA from Europe. June’s Jakarta Formula E race has been scrapped after the Indonesian government intervened, but this weekend’s Rally Mexico, round three of the World Rally Championship, is going ahead.
Other major events and sporting fixtures around the world are being cancelled in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus, including the remainder of the National Basketball Association season and this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
Motor sport has thus far been slow to react, at least in part because the season is only just getting underway. Race organisers will inevitably come under pressure to postpone or cancel their meetings. In the absence of government bans, many will take their lead from Formula One.