After several weeks of concern and 12 hours of complete confusion, the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled shortly after 10 A.M on Friday.
Six hours earlier it had been clear the race would not go ahead as planned, yet, in a farcical turn of events, fans were allowed to arrive and queue outside the circuit gates before anything was made official.
Arguably, a decision should have been made at 10 P.M. on Thursday evening when news broke that a McLaren team member had tested positive for coronavirus, but a series of events led to a delay. Like eight other members of the F1 paddock who had experienced potential symptoms, the individual had gone to see a doctor the day before and then entered self-isolation to await the results. While the other eight test results came back negative, the McLaren employee tested positive and with it the team immediately withdrew from the race.
It was a brave decision by McLaren, but the reasons were clear. Soon after, a further 14 members of the McLaren team who had been in contact with the individual were put under a 14-day quarantine, underlining the severity of the situation and the impact it would have on the operation of the team
F1 and the FIA had been aware that various members of the paddock were being tested for the virus, yet when the test came back positive it appeared no contingency plan was in place. What followed was a long night of meetings and discussions with teams and stakeholders, culminating in a statement 12 hours later that the race had, indeed, been cancelled.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say F1 should never have travelled to Australia — a point raised by Lewis Hamilton in Thursday’s official press conference before the news of the positive test. But while it should not be forgotten that the situation has developed rapidly since the first freight left for Melbourne nearly a month ago, it was the indecision and lack of communication that followed the news of a paddock infection that leaves serious questions hanging over F1’s decision making.
How the decision was reached
Following Thursday’s news from McLaren, a meeting was called between bosses of the nine remaining teams, Formula One, the FIA and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) to discuss what would happen next. The meetings continued until 2:30 A.M. on Friday morning and on their conclusion the majority of teams made clear they would not be racing this weekend.
The key decision makers were ultimately Ferrari and Mercedes, who not only run two of the biggest teams on the grid but also supply engines to four others. Along with McLaren, once they had decided to pull their power unit engineers out of the Australian Grand Prix, a maximum of three teams were left. One of those teams was Renault, which had voted against racing anyway, and the others were Red Bull-owned teams Red Bull Racing and Alpha Tauri that still wanted to go ahead with the opening practice session on Friday morning.
The lack of communication over the situation led to confusion, anger and genuine concerns for the health of the individuals involved. Some teams informed their staff immediately that they would be packing up and going home, while others continued with business as usual ahead of the planned first practice session at midday.
Fans arrived at the gates early on Friday morning expecting to be let into the circuit for what was still being billed as the first day of F1 track action. Inside the gates, a converted two-seater F1 car gave VIP passenger rides around the circuit as per Friday’s track schedule and the AGPC communicated to local media that it planned to push ahead with the race weekend as planned.
As the fans gathered in large crowds at the gates, officials with loud hailers told the collecting masses that the opening time had been “delayed while we work through today’s programming and scheduling”. To underline the complete disconnect between the messaging and the reality of the situation, as the fans huddled to hear more information, Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel and Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen had already left the country on flights home.
In the paddock, F1’s decision makers knew there would be no F1 track action this weekend due to the decision made by the majority of teams and it was only at 9 A.M. that the local government stepped in to offer fans some much-needed advice.
“On public health grounds, there will be no spectators at the grand prix this weekend if a race actually happens at all,” the premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, told local media. “[The race itself] is a matter for them and they will make announcements very soon.”
Around the same time, F1 finally confirmed to the AGPC that the race would be called off. The exact reason for the six and half hour delay from the end of the meeting with team principals and the final decision is unclear, but F1 CEO Chase Carey was keen to stress it was decision made by F1, the FIA and the Australian Grand Prix with “input” from the teams.
“In terms of the decision, you know, we spent the last evening really getting input from everybody,” he said at a press conference later in the day. “It was a joint decision – the FIA, our Australian partners, ourselves, certainly [with] input from the teams.
“As would be expected, there were a range of views. We’re dealing with things real time in a very difficult, challenging situation. Were there differing views? Yes, and I think that’s what everybody tried to wrestle through, but I think we got to the right place and I think we all agree that we made the right decision.”
In a separate statement later in the day on F1’s official website, motorsport director Ross Brawn added a little more flesh to the bones.
“There was consultation with the teams, the medical authorities, the FIA and the promoters here,” Brawn said. “I’ve been up all night. We had so many issues to work through. We had to get the teams together again and hold a meeting. It all takes time.
“It’s not a total autocracy as in we just can’t make a decision. We have so many factors to take into account. I think we did a pretty good job of reaching the right conclusion with so many stakeholders involved. We’re talking to the FIA, which is in Europe on a Europe timezone, and we had to speak to [FIA President] Jean Todt.
“[F1 CEO] Chase [Carey] unfortunately was in the air, flying between Vietnam and here. So it was a pretty stressful period. Considering we dealt with everything in 12 hours, for something that important, was good.”
Naturally a decision of that size on the eve of the grand prix has contractual and financial implications and there were suggestions they may have been behind the delay. But Andrew Westacott, CEO of the AGPC, said the exact details of who foots the bill is still to be determined over the coming days and weeks.
“A cancellation of this nature has a lot of consequences, and some of those are contractual and financial,” he said. “We will work those through with the commercial rights holder in the days and weeks following this announcement, and we will be making sure that appropriate contractual measures are looked after in that manner.”
Nevertheless, Lewis Hamilton’s comments in Thursday’s press conference that “cash is king” when it comes to F1’s decision making, ring even louder now than they did at the time. For many the reputations of the FIA and F1 have taken a severe battering in the last 24 hours, not least because of the apparent disregard for the well-being of fans who queued together in close proximity for a race that had already been called off due to concerns about a contagious virus. Yet Carey defended the decision making.
“If cash was king we wouldn’t have made the decision we did today,” he said. “In hindsight obviously things look different, events evolve situations change and we made a decision, which given the lead time to come here and hold the event when major events were being held here, it was a different situation in the world.
“As the situation changed day to day in some days hour to hour we continued to evaluate that and make the appropriate decisions going forward. We were trying to digest a lot of different information to make the right decision at the right time and I think we did that.”
What happens next?
Carey went on to explain that a decision would have to be made “imminently” on whether to go ahead with the next scheduled race in Bahrain on March 22. The circuit has already decided to host the grand prix behind closed doors, but with the global spread of coronavirus accelerating rather than receding, it’s hard to see how it can it go ahead at all.
The fact the start of the Bahrain race weekend is less than a week away again calls F1’s decision-making process into question. While teams are able to leave Australia early, they remain in limbo over where they will be heading next. The first wave of team members is due in Bahrain in the next 24 hours to start setting up garages, while the vast majority were due to fly early next week from Australia.
Carey was keen to stress that the wider picture for the F1 season remains “fluid”, but it’s hard to imagine a situation in which F1 can reconvene in the near future. There has been talk of the Australian Grand Prix being postponed to a later date, but with the postponed Chinese Grand Prix keen to find a gap in an already-packed calendar and the level of planning and setup required for a race in Albert Park, it seems incredibly unlikely it will happen this year.
A realistic date for the first race of the season is June 7 in Azerbaijan — a country that has not been as hard hit by coronavirus as Europe and a date that provides a period of time to properly understand the risks involved with travelling. But with no knowing how the situation will develop — for better or worse — a Baku season opener is far from official. The organisers of the Monaco Grand Prix released a statement on Friday confirming its race was still aiming to go ahead at the end of May, with the caveat that it would have to continue to monitor the situation closely.
“I don’t think at this point it’s productive to get into hypotheticals,” Carey said. “We’re going to have discussions in the coming days about trying to look a degree forward – obviously we have to deal with some of the shorter-term issues first.
“Are we looking at various options? Sure. But I don’t think at this point you can start to put plans in place longer-term. I think you have to deal with the issues that you have to deal with that are imminent but the longer-term we will see where it evolves.
“Obviously everyone hopes that the world gets back to a place where it’s a functioning world and a functioning marketplace, but we have to deal with it as it evolves.”
The first hope is that the human consequences of F1’s trip to Australia are not too severe. With the benefit of hindsight, the sport should not have travelled to Melbourne, but what is of vital importance now is making sure F1 does not make the same mistake again. The coronavirus is not going to disappear in the coming weeks and misguided beliefs that F1 might be able to travel the world with immunity have clearly been disproved. The upcoming races in Bahrain and Vietnam should be cancelled, and from there F1 can start to assess what’s left of its 2020 season.