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Opinion

What next for F1 amid the coronavirus?

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Roar Guru
13th March, 2020
7

After what could only be described as a shambolic non-event of an Australian Grand Prix, the big question on everyone’s minds is: what comes next for the Formula One world championship in 2020?

A positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed at around 10:20pm on Thursday in the build-up to the opening round of the season, with a member of the McLaren team the first and so far only positive case of the rapidly spreading disease in the paddock.

What followed was many hours of speculation as behind closed doors the fate of the Melbourne race was decided. The logical conclusion was that, given the enormity of the event, a complete cancellation would be best, which eventually came in at around 10:15am AEDT on Friday.

In that 12-hour gap there was mass confusion among team personnel, media and the fans, who after all are the lifeblood of any sport and the paying customers, demanding to know whether their ticket would see them admitted to the event.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said at around 9am Friday that if there were to be a race at all, it would have to take place behind closed doors, meaning that there would be no fans present trackside.

Such a disconnect between the organising parties left many perplexed, hence the shambolic aspect of Friday’s proceedings. Why could there not have been a statement from the FIA and Formula One Management much earlier? The McLaren team had already announced they’d be withdrawing from the Australian Grand Prix on Thursday, and reigning championship-winning team Mercedes, as we learnt on Friday, had sent a letter to the FIA the night before requesting the cancellation of the race.

It was reported that in a vote of the ten F1 teams late on Thursday night only three were keen to continue racing, which was incongruous with F1 motorsport boss Ross Brawn’s statement to Reuters last week that if one team couldn’t compete, there’d be no championship race.

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When facing the press, F1 CEO Chase Carey, who’d only just flown in from meetings in Hanoi over the upcoming Vietnamese Grand Prix, repeatedly used the term “fluid” when describing the current coronavirus situation and emphasised how rapidly the epidemic is changing.

Crisis talks would no doubt be underway about the Bahrain Grand Prix, which is due to begin next week, as well as the following races in Vietnam and the Netherlands, both of which are new additions to the F1 calendar.

Given the fact that the first positive case of COVID-19 among Formula One occurred with a team member, it must be emphasised that even staging a race behind closed doors – as the Bahrain event has been planned to do so – is not a safe option considering the immense number of staff who travel with all the teams as well as media personnel and officials.

Fourteen more McLaren team members have now been placed under a two-week quarantine in Melbourne and there is fear more cases may emerge over the coming days given these personnel would have been in contact with other people in the short time they were in Melbourne.

As much as sport is meant to be a beacon of positivity during such negative times, there is a difference between being positive and also being reckless. Formula One, which is meant to be an industry leader and world-class innovator did not show the leadership it should have done on this occasion.

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The NBA upon its first positive case moved swiftly to indefinitely suspend its season, while the first four races of the MotoGP season have either been cancelled or postponed. The World Endurance Championship will not race at Sebring as planned next weekend and Formula E has suspended its season for two months.

Some sports are going to go behind closed doors to prevent mass gatherings while still provide the competition, which is a huge deal for broadcasters. But how far will this go when even musicians are being forced to cancel tours and music festivals are being called off?

At the end of the day a financial loss is a financial loss, and there will be major losses globally across many different industries. However, that mustn’t take precedence over the duty of care that any organisation has to its stakeholders. Loss of life due to another individual’s negligence would be unacceptable.

“Cash is king,” were the comments of reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton on Thursday, while F1 CEO Carey rebutted, “If cash was king, then we wouldn’t have cancelled”. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been allowed to take place at all. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The future is more important now, with many members of the international media scrambling to get home, which for most means Europe. As much as sport is a healthy distraction from disasters for us, in this instance it would be best to put that all on hold.