McLaren’s withdrawal piles pressure on F1 to cancel Australian Grand Prix

2020 Australian Grand Prix

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On Thursday morning in Melbourne it was still possible to say Formula 1 was Coronavirus-free.

Speaking to the media Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams gave her view on Formula 1 and the FIA’s contentious decision to go ahead with its season-opening race in Australia.

“It’s a situation that they are managing in close collaboration with the relevant authorities. And at the end of the day – and I’m not an expert on this – I believe here it’s up to the Australian government to make the final call.

“That final call has happened and we’re here racing. But as far as I’m concerned, there is no case of Corona in Formula 1. And so therefore we are playing it literally, probably, hour by hour.”

But a few hours later, that all changed. A McLaren team member tested positive for the Coronavirus and the team announced its withdrawal from the race. That swift, decisive action contrasted sharply with F1’s response, which came in a bland, non-committal statement.

Zak Brown, Albert Park, Melbourne, 2020
McLaren CEO Zak Brown fist-bumped fans at Melbourne Walk
Around the world, rival championships have already abandoned planned races. Moto GP has shelved four rounds. Formula E has cancelled three. Earlier today, the World Endurance Championship called off next weekend’s round at Sebring.

Formula 1 has not been blind to the rising threat from the virus, which was officially designated as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation yesterday. Restrictions on interactions between team members and fans have been put in place along with hand sanitisation stations and procedures for testing.

But the news of the paddock’s first infection shatters the sport’s hope that it could limit the spread of the virus. How, when and where the paddock’s first infection came about is not known. But pressing on with the race weekend will inevitably raise fears that more people will fall ill.

The sport had already faced significant criticism, some from within its own ranks, since its arrival at Albert Park earlier this week.

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Before McLaren’s withdrawal was announced Lewis Hamilton was the first driver to criticise the decision to carry on with the race. While most of his colleagues read from the predictable public relations script about trusting the judgement of those in charge, the world champion said it was “shocking” F1 intended to continue as normal.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Albert Park, 2020
Hamilton said it was “shocking” the race was on
His words grabbed the desired headlines. But his concern for the wellbeing of the older members of the paddock, such as Jackie Stewart, who are most at risk from the Covid-19 disease spread by the Coronavirus, was obviously genuine.

While Hamilton was clearest of all in his opposition to the race going ahead, Kimi Raikkonen indicated his view is well-supported within the paddock. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing that we are here, probably not,” said the Alfa Romeo driver, adding, “I think if it would be purely be all the teams’ decision we probably wouldn’t be here.”

If Formula 1 chooses to abandon its season-opener, it will have to jump through its own regulatory hoops. Per the rule book, the event has already started as the 20 cars originally entered for it passed scrutineering earlier on Thursday.

Further team withdrawals could allow for the swift cancellation of the event. Having lost McLaren, the number of participating cars has fallen to 18. Article 5.7 of the Sporting Regulations states “an event may be cancelled if fewer than 12 cars are available for it”.

But with the regional government preparing to meet tomorrow morning to discuss whether the race will go ahead, F1 may find the decision is taken for it.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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29 comments on “McLaren’s withdrawal piles pressure on F1 to cancel Australian Grand Prix”

  1. And that’s what they’ll do. Wait for the regional government decision. It’s so much easier having others decide for you, as you can shift any blame and responsibility for whatever outcome.

    1. that must have taken place @bakano – the BBC are confirming it is postponed

      1. @ahxshades, I guess it will but no official confirmation, as the article even says:

        This weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix has been postponed over coronavirus concerns, two senior F1 sources have told BBC Sport.

        There has been no official confirmation as yet from F1 or governing body the FIA but the news follows a McLaren team member testing positive for the virus.

        The BBC is probably banking on being the first to report it as this is the most likely scenario…

    2. No one wants to be the party that cancels it as they end up wearing the costs associated I presume?

  2. Well, they might get FP1 done before the government meeting concludes. And then pack up.

    1. That is a bonkers idea @mrfill. That means you have thousands of people packed in trams and trains and busses travelling to the track, waiting in lines to get in etc, only to then be told they have to get back out again. Back into lines to get out and back into public transport to get back to their hotels

      1. 5 hours later and what do we have? People queueing outside the circuit, not knowing whether they will be let in and drivers not knowing whether they will race or not as there doesn’t seem to have been any official abandonment.

        Yes, my prediction was completely bonkers and your response completely correct. Your prediction has happened and mine is still possible. Crazy eh?

  3. The only good thing to come out of this is that hopefully they will cancel the first 5 races and we will get a manageable length of a season. I honestly didn’t know the season was starting this weekend until yesterday. Seems like the winter break is shorter and shorter. Too much is too much especially if a lot of people can get sick and die because of it.

    1. F1 starts in march since the 80’s

      1. @darryn @rvg013 That’s because the shortening occurs at the other end. For most of the 1990s, F1 ended at some point in October. Last year, it ended on December 1st.

  4. Since more and more bits of news (tv crews etc) seeps out about the race actually going ahead – with the Victoria govt. being one of those pushing for that scenario – I think it is good to write it down, how much I really don’t think it is a good idea at all.

    We have the situation of one team not being able to compete (something Liberty has said would mean no points race). We have indications that many, if not most, of team personell are not keen to be there and race – both from what @ben-n mentioned on this site, as well as from what Kimi and Hamilton have stated already to the press.
    And we have a potentially dangerous situation.

    Now, I might be playing it too safe. But really I feel like saying what I said on the day before the Japanese 2014 race, when it looked like F1 was sticking its head in the sand just as it had in 2005 in Indianapolis. I had hoped that Liberty would have more common sense. And I guess McLaren showed that at least something is a tad more responsible by now. But really PLEASE don’t make that same mistake F1.

  5. Williams, Haas and Alfa could all do the same as Mclaren. Force the hand of those who are sitting on the fence. It’s not like those 3 teams are expecting significant points from the race anyway.

  6. The BBC are confirming it as postponed

    1. petebaldwin (@)
      12th March 2020, 15:42

      It’s the only sensible decision. It’s crazy that they decided to fly everyone half-way round the world on planes before making it but at least common sense has finally prevailed.

    2. And at the same time Sky are confirming it as going ahead … @ahxshades. So sigh, who knows. How many thousand of fans will not know what is going on when they get up to go to the race tomorrow???

      1. Currently the situation (at sometime 3AM in Australia!) seems to be that the teams, in a late night meeting between themselves reacted to the sitiation by deciding to tell the FIA that they want to pull out and have the race cancelled. The FIA is said to want to accept this teams decision and therefore cancell therace.

        On the one hand, phew if they do. On the other hand, why did it have to be the teams to do the responsible thing??? ANd why on earth is there still no clear message either from the FIA nor from F1 management (or the promotor, I guess?) about this when in about 3-4 hours people will start getting underway to the race track?

        1. @bascb
          As you mentioned, the meeting ended around 3:30 AM same as reported by Autosprint/La Gazzetta dello sport and the cancellation decision was confirmed. The thing is FIA and FOM took a gamble that didn’t work, they have to make this season start at all costs given the financial impact on all the parties (FOM, promoters, broadcasters….), however the situation has worsened many since the teams, journalists, tv stuff, fans have already traveled to Australia and risk the infection. Many of them probably have booked for the Bahrain GP who is also at risk and some of them (Ferrari & Alfa Tauri) may find it hard to return home since a lot of countries have canceled their flights from/to Italy.

          1. A huge mess really @tifoso1980. I feel it’s a pretty damning sign that ALL the teams were able to agree on something, but still the FIA, F1 management and the Victorian government are holding out to have the race.
            As of 8:20 this morning Australian time (this is what hte circuit says, the teams currently are on their way to the track, but according to many journalists they will arrive only to pack up)

          2. sorry, that should have been @tifoso1989

        2. @bascb, it’s crazy to think that they flow half way around the world just to pack up. How many persons have been unnecessarily exposed because of this? We will never know.

          1. I sure hope we won’t ever learn the number (since they would likely be the number of tested for CoVid-2

    3. @ahxshades, as I mentioned above, the BBC’s article says:

      This weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix has been postponed over coronavirus concerns, two senior F1 sources have told BBC Sport.

      There has been no official confirmation as yet from F1 or governing body the FIA but the news follows a McLaren team member testing positive for the virus.

      The BBC is probably banking on being the first to report it as this is the most likely scenario…

  7. Problem for F1 is what to do with this 1000-1500 strong circus which is already halfway around the world away from their homes.

    Can’t send them back to Europe as chances of catching the virus enroute or in Europe are higher than in Australia.
    Can’t send them to Bahrain as they may catch the virus enroute or from each other (remember, not all infected folks exhibit symptoms. We have 1 confirmed case so far, further more may be on the way.
    So this circus just has to stay put where they are I feel.

    1. yeah, test the whole lot, keep them where they are for 2 weeks minimum and in between, see whether the season will start for real in Zandvoort, or later, depending on how things develop in the next week or so.

    2. @Sumedh Technically, for 2 weeks they can’t send them anywhere – they should be in quarantine where they are. After that, it should be clearer what to do next.

  8. The moment the McLaren staff member tested positive, the whole paddock needed quarantining for a fortnight. I’m shocked it’s taking so long for the FIA and F1 to figure this out – this is a clear-cut force majeure situation, stipulated by third parties. At this point, even insurance isn’t an issue, because “third parties” here include the WHO and continuing would result in anyone involved getting sued.

  9. Since everybody already is in Melbourne, including the fans, they should run the race…as non-championship round.

  10. The race has been cancelled.

  11. ActiveSuspender
    12th March 2020, 19:52

    I am appalled that the race is still going on, I hope they are going to cancel it. Imagine if Ferrari or Mercedes pulled out of the race, I guess it would have been easier to make this decision.

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