Few figures in Formula One emerged with any great credit as the season opener fell apart in Melbourne. Coronavirus, as had seemed inevitable, simply proved an implacable force against which the sport’s attempt to pretend it was business as usual was left looking impotent and foolhardy. Throughout the process the major players had all been toeing the party line, but one had the backbone to articulate what many were thinking. Step forward Lewis Hamilton, an honourable and honest voice amid the delusion of F1’s bubble.
Melbourne is ordinarily a celebratory place to kick off a new season. The atmosphere is superb as the city embraces teams, media and fans. The sheer pleasure felt in returning to racing after the close season is palpable. This time, it was altogether different.
At best subdued, at worst there was a sense of foreboding. It was two-fold. There was disquiet that with the paddock such a tightly knit community – hundreds of people working in close proximity – should, as seemed plausible, the virus have travelled with them it could spread exponentially. Of greater concern, though, was the fear F1 would have brought the infection from Europe and that, at an event that attracts up to 100,000 people a day, the sport would be responsible for giving the virus a real grip in Melbourne and Australia.
The idea of an explosion of cases in the city in the weeks following the sport’s departure was frequently discussed but not by the principal protagonists of F1. The stance taken by every driver was uniformly similar. George Russell of Williams even referred to it as the “corporate line”. They were, they all parroted, taking their cue from F1 and the FIA. They trusted the governing bodies: to ensure everyone’s safety, to use experts to make the right decisions, and that hence F1 and the FIA were in the position to make the right call.
This is a banal enough abdication of responsibility at the best of times, such as over controversial decisions on regulations. When it came to a public health threat that was claiming lives around the world and F1 being in a position potentially to increase that suffering, it seemed extraordinary, almost a denial of basic human empathy in favour of swallowing the platitudes the sport was telling the world and of which it had falsely convinced itself.
On Thursday expectations that anyone would stray from the orthodoxy were low. Hamilton, however, thankfully retains a genuinely independent spirit. He alienates some with his lifestyle, his embrace of music and fashion, the jetsetting and his forthright opinions from veganism to climate change, but he has always spoken from the heart. Now, as a six-times world champion and the only truly global star of the show, he can say whatever he likes. To Hamilton if there was a corporate line, it was at best a suggestion, at worst possibly something he rightly identified as so absurd he felt the need to speak out against it.
When asked his opinion why the race was going ahead he was caustic. “Cash is king,” he said. “I can’t add much more to it. I don’t feel like I should shy away from my opinion.”
More did follow. “I am really very, very surprised that we are here,” he said. “It’s really shocking that we are all sitting in this room. There are so many fans here today and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting, probably a little bit late, but we have already seen that Trump has shut down the borders with Europe to the States and you are seeing the NBA being suspended , yet Formula One continues to go on. It’s a concern I think for the people here – it’s quite a big circus that’s come here and it’s definitely concerning for me.”
Hours later a McLaren team member tested positive for coronavirus and it was not long afterwards that the race was cancelled. By Friday afternoon the next two meetings, in Bahrain and Vietnam, had followed suit. But Hamilton had articulated the reality of the threat and F1 had been jolted from its fantasy to understand the wider implications of attempting to ensure the show went on.
F1, as with every sport, is still reeling. But it is still just sport, and not a matter of life and death. Most certainly F1 should not be contributing in any way to increasing the risk of the latter in the communities it visits. Hamilton recognised this and was the greater man in Melbourne because of it.