Unsurprisingly, the opening days of the Australian Grand Prix have been dominated by discussion surrounding Coronavirus, as many other sporting codes place their immediate futures on hold.
As of Thursday afternoon, Formula One, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation and the Victorian Government had every intention of the event running its course. This is despite three team personnel entering isolation having experienced symptoms earlier in the week. It’s an outcome that moved six-time champion Lewis Hamilton to reveal his frustration.
There was a noticeably subdued if not tense atmosphere in the air on Wednesday, with Renault’s press conference excusing its drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon, while customary paddock handshakes were a rare sight.
Further to this, a two-metre exclusion zone has been placed on media sessions, with many modified to remove confined exposure to the fourth estate altogether, as teams opt for hyper vigilance. Meanwhile, driver signing sessions have been replaced by more sterile Q-and-A events and the popular Melbourne Walk won’t be as intimate as has been the case in recent years.
These measures are relatively conservative, considering that China – initially scheduled as the fourth round of the championship next month – has been indefinitely postponed, and with the Bahrain International Circuit announcing that its event – the week following Melbourne – will be held behind closed doors.
Even more so with MotoGP facing a season commencing no earlier than May as Argentina became the latest host to succumb to the outbreak. The longer the postponements continue, the less feasible alternative dates can be logistically scheduled, raising the notion whether the category can fulfil the minimum quota of 13 events to qualify as a championship season.
Whatever transpires on that front, it’s not a bridge Formula One has faced crossing at this point. The Australian government’s earlier decision to permit Italians to enter the country under increased screening provisions – until imposing an outright restriction of Wednesday evening – allowed personnel from Ferrari, Alpha Tauri (formerly Toro Rosso) and tyre supplier Pirelli to arrive soundly.
Driven primarily by the former’s stature, it raises the point whether the aforementioned stakeholders at the top of this column view the well-being of not only Australian residents, but also those visiting, as a secondary consideration to the revenue generated.
Even if by miracle we emerge from the weekend without an upswing in cases specific to attendance across the four days, the effects can’t be quantified for weeks after factoring in the millions who come into contact with anybody associated with the race. At the least, it runs a concerning risk of setting a precedent that mass public events are safe to proceed.
Hamilton, who is attempting to equal Michael Schumacher’s record seven in addition to surpassing the German’s 91 victories this season, expressed his surprise that the race is proceeding.
The Briton was moved to remark that “I am really very, very surprised that we’re here. I think it’s great that we have races, but for me it’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this room”, at a drivers press conference that was dominated by the subject on Thursday, adding that “it seems like the rest of the world is reacting… a little late yet Formula One continues to go on.”
Such strong sentiment from somebody of Hamilton’s gravitas is difficult to ignore. While the emergence of the cars on the track will present a welcome distraction, the sport will be treading a delicate line in coming days, and its response in the instance of further deterioration has the potential to define its reputation.