The Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix was over before barely a wheel had been turned.
On Friday morning, the FIA, Formula One Management and Australian Grand Prix Corporation jointly announced that the 2020 season-opening event will be cancelled after a member of the McLaren team tested positive for the COVID-19 Coronavirus, forcing the Woking squad to withdraw its entries.
With several other team members from McLaren and Haas undergoing Coronavirus testing (all were subsequently cleared), matters were quickly coming to a head. On Thursday night the teams met with the FIA, FOM, AGPC and members of the Victorian state government and health departments to determine what, if any options, were available.
The teams voted on whether or not to stage the event. At the first vote, Mercedes-AMG, Red Bull Racing, Scuderia AlphaTauri and Racing Point voted to go ahead with the race, while Scuderia Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo voted that it be cancelled. Abstaining were the Williams and Haas teams, with McLaren absent.
After further consideration, Mercedes-AMG changed its position and its customer teams, Racing Point and Williams, to vote against the race going ahead, giving the opposition bloc a simple majority.
By Friday morning, the various bodies were still thrashing out a final decision. No one among the FIA, FOM or AGPC wanted to be the first to pull the trigger – there was a distinct hierarchy in the decision-making process as well as significant financial implications tied to the final outcome.
Verified stories emerged that Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen – who had both publicly expressed concerns that the Grand Prix was happening at all – had already flown out of the country.
As thousands of fans queued at the gates, Victorian state premier Daniel Andrews confirmed that were the event to proceed, it would be closed to spectators under the instruction of the area’s Chief Medical Officer.
Mercedes-AMG forced the issue by mid-morning and published a letter it had written to the FIA and FOM advising it would join McLaren in withdrawing from the event given that the safety and health of its employees could not be guaranteed were the Grand Prix to continue.
The trigger was finally pulled when the Australian Grand Prix Corporation called off the event.
“At 9am today the Australian Grand Prix Corporation was advised by Formula 1 of their intention to cancel all Formula 1 activity at the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix,” read a statement from the AGPC. “In light of this decision and updated advice this morning from the Chief Health Officer of the Victorian Government’s Department of Human and Health Services, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation confirms the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix is cancelled immediately.
“Last night a member of the McLaren Racing team tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. A further seven individuals returned negative results, confirming that they do not have the COVID-19 virus.
“Additionally, a ninth individual has been assessed and tested for the COVID-19 virus, with the results of this test pending. This individual is not associated with any Formula 1 team, the FIA or associated suppliers.
“Our first priority is the safety of everyone including attendees, our personnel, all event partners and members of the local community.
“Further information regarding refunds for ticket holders will be communicated in due course.”
That was swiftly followed by a statement from Formula One Management, which added: “Following the confirmation that a member of the McLaren Racing Team has tested positive for COVID-19 and the team’s decision to withdraw from the Australian Grand Prix, Formula 1 and the FIA convened a meeting of the other nine team principals on Thursday evening.
“Those discussions concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead. Formula 1 and the FIA, with the full support of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) have therefore taken the decision that all Formula 1 activity for the Australian Grand Prix is cancelled.
“We appreciate this is very disappointing news for the thousands of fans due to attend the race and all ticket holders will receive a full refund and a further announcement will be communicated in due course.
“All parties took into consideration the huge efforts of the AGPC, Motorsport Australia, staff and volunteers to stage the opening round of the 2020 FIA Formula One World Championship in Melbourne, however concluded that the safety of all members of the Formula 1 family and the wider community, as well as the fairness of the competition take priority.”
While the early stages of the pack-up began behind them, AGPC CEO Andrew Westacott and F1 chairman Chase Carey met with the assembled media in an extraordinary press conference.
An emotional Westacott apologised to the fans and expressed sympathy for the businesses and contractors who would be financially impacted by the event’s cancellation.
“This event could not happen if it wasn’t for the ecosystem that exists in Victoria,” he said.
“So not only is it the fans, but there’s the element of sadness and disappointment that we have for the 600 suppliers, the 12,000 staff that work the event on the weekend, the 180 staff that [the AGPC] has, and the family that is Formula 1.”
While the immediate focus was on this weekend’s drama, attention also pointed to the forthcoming races on the calendar.
FOM and the FIA are expected to confirm that next weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix and the inaugural Vietnam Grand Prix that follows it will both be postponed or cancelled altogether.
A number of teams have reportedly refused to compete in Bahrain just a few days after the fiasco in Melbourne, while the Vietnamese government has ratcheted up its incoming travel restrictions in a bid to minimise the Coronavirus outbreak within its borders.
With fears that the spread of the virus – which the World Health Organisation today officially declared a pandemic – will worsen across Europe, Formula 1 needs to brace itself for the potential cancellations of the Dutch, Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix that run in April and May.
Images via Ignite Image