For a sport proud of presenting its drama on a global stage Formula One’s curtain raiser in Melbourne offered only farce. With the Australian Grand Prix cancelled because of the coronavirus, events that have seemed all too predictable were portrayed as having accelerated beyond expectations. The governing bodies left wringing their hands, protesting impotence as the wheels came off and with the opening meetings of the new season also most likely condemned to cancellation. The global drama brought low by the global pandemic.
On Friday morning at Albert Park, F1, the sport’s governing body, FIA and race organisers the Australian Grand Prix Corporation announced the race was to be abandoned. It had been almost 12 hours since McLaren announced that one of its team members had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The decision making process, involving all the governing bodies, teams and government health officials had been long and torturous, but not communicated externally and not announced until fans were already queuing to get into the circuit in their droves. It was merely mismanagement that had crowned what increasingly appears to have been at best an optimistic decision to bring thousands of F1 personnel from a Europe already creaking under the assault of the coronavirus to a mass gathering event that attracts up to 100,000 people a day. In the light of sport across the world curtailing activity to restrict the spread of the virus, that F1 felt it could escape unscathed seems hopelessly naive.
At Albert Park on Friday under suitably overcast, gloaming skies, the big screens dotted around the track incongruously still glared their bright, digital greetings, welcoming one and all to the Melbourne GP. Their audience mere desultory, dusty expanses of empty space. Their bright entreaties now hollow, baleful, monuments to the hubris that had surely fuelled this failure.
At a hastily assembled press conference held outdoors at the track, F1’s chief executive Chase Carey did his best to put his company’s case for coming so far and in doing so taking the risks of further spreading the virus ultimately for nothing.
“it is obviously a fluid situation,” he said. “The situation today is different than it was two days ago, which was different than it was four days ago, so trying to look out and make those sorts of predictions when it’s changing this quick is challenging.”
On Thursday it was the positive test result that precipitated the collapse of the house of cards. It led McLaren to withdraw from the race and other teams including, it is understood, Ferrari and later Mercedes, insisting they too would not take part. That someone in the paddock might be infected was surely inescapable. Shortly beforehand Lewis Hamilton, the six-time world champion whose position at the very apex of the sport lends his words both freedom and weight, had dismissed the decision to come to Australia witheringly as “cash is king”.
Certainly F1’s very existence is bound inextricably to its complex finances. Race hosting fees are one of the three biggest sources of income for the sport. Income on which every team depends for their survival. The other two streams are broadcast rights and sponsorship. Both are at risk when there is no show in town.
There is a complexity too to the relationship of the players involved. The organisers do not want to be the ones to cancel a race, for risk that they will lose their race fee. Likewise F1 do not want to be the ones to do so or be held responsible for failing to deliver their product to broadcasters and sponsors and potentially having to return the race fee. Between them the FIA apparently also tries not be held culpable for cancellation for fear any of the other parties find them responsible.
This gordian knot tied F1 to coming to Australia, and it was only ultimately severed as things fell apart. Not solved by Alexandrian invention but rather as the teams departed, simple expediency.
“If cash was king we wouldn’t have made the decision we did today,” said Carey, despite every apparent indication that those involved had been muscled, kicking and screaming into making the decision. The circumstances he kept insisting were impossible to predict, although the coronavirus was presenting such a clear and present danger across the globe. “In many ways this is an unprecedented situation,” he said. “I have never lived though anything like this. the magnitude, the extent, the unpredictability, the fluidity of this.”
As the conference due to a close, sporadic, weighty drops of rain began to fall as if the skies of Victoria itself were calling time with a slow hand clap on an unconvincing performance.
More fallout is to come and goodwill toward F1 will be a casualty here as well. Outside the track, fans who had not seen an F1 wheel tun in anger were left disappointed and angry.
These are fans F1 can ill-afford to alienate and the overwhelming impression was that it would have been better to simply have taken the bold step to postpone in the interests of safety long before.
As things stand Melbourne may just be the first domino. McLaren have announced that 14 members of the team and the one confirmed case are now in in quarantine at the team hotel for 14 days. No team members will be able to go the factory for 14 days after returning to the UK. With the Bahrain GP set to take place behind closed doors next weekend McLaren’s participation looks all but impossible and with them potentially backed by other teams goes the strong likelihood that race will not happen.
Carey acknowledged that Bahrain was now an urgent issue in Melbourne. “We have to deal with it imminently,” he said. “In the very short term we need to be addressing the immediately upcoming events, we expect to address that with our partners, the FIA our partners in Bahrain.”
Similarly he had to visit Vietnam just before coming to Australia to hold talks in Hanoi as the meeting there is reportedly on the brink of bring being pulled. There is, one might surmise, a pattern here. It might yet do F1 some good to learn from Australia and accept that sheer will alone is not enough to make these three opening meetings happen. To take the hit, and take stock in how the sport might exist in a world where the coronavirus has changed the game.