On January 21, a Chinese colleague asked some of us who work in Formula 1 and share a WhatsApp group if we were worried about coronavirus, and got largely ignored. At that point, it was something that was starting to flare up in China, but how big it could become was relatively unknown.
Fast-forward 42 days, and it’s all anyone in F1 is talking about.
There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding when it comes to how coronavirus and F1 are intertwined, so I thought I’d try and explain just how tricky some of the situations are.
Promoters and governments are paying huge sums of money to host F1 races, and for the early rounds in Australia, Bahrain and Vietnam preparations are well advanced in terms of being ready for the grand prix. Some staff are already in place to coordinate the setup, and huge amounts have been spent by all those involved to get there.
So calling a race off at this point would be hugely expensive, which means the default is to try and make it happen if the global health situation allows.
As it stands, Australia is pretty clear on its approach. Unless you have been in China or Iran in the past 14 days, you can enter the country. And there are no bans on mass gatherings or activities, so nothing that stops a race happening. In fact, the only issue has been that the few Chinese members of F1’s media entourage have had to stay away from home between the final test and the first race.
But those three words – ‘as it stands’ – are crucial, and are certainly giving F1 a headache.
On Sunday night, I started replying to a number of questions or comments on Twitter about the situation, jokingly calling it ‘Coronavirus Corner’. But it feels like I haven’t stopped since then. At that point, there were no restrictions that would impact the race, even if the situation in MotoGP was being used as a stick to beat F1 with.
MotoGP called off its opening round in Qatar seven days before the race because the Qatari government imposed restrictions that meant anyone arriving from Italy (a large portion of the MotoGP paddock) would immediately enter into a 14-day quarantine, therefore missing the event. Then Thailand postponed its round, much in the same way the Chinese Grand Prix was called off, as the organizers determined that now is not the right time to host it.
F1 didn’t have any such restrictions in its host countries at that point, but on Monday, Vietnam took a similar stance to Qatar in imposing a 14-day quarantine on anyone arriving from China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. As everyone would return home after the second race in Bahrain, the latter would impact on Ferrari, AlphaTauri, Haas and Alfa Romeo (as Ferrari customer teams using Italian engineers) and Pirelli, as well as a number of media and support staff.
Of course, there’s still a bit of time to react to that right now. But soon after, Bahrain announced that it will ban anyone entering the country if they have visited or transited through Italy, Iraq, China, Hong Kong, Iran, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore in the 14 days prior to arrival. There is also a block on flights in from Dubai and Sharjah in the UAE.
For anyone already in Italy, that announcement could be troublesome, as most will fly to Australia later this week and on to Bahrain within 14 days of that. But even if action has already been taken, a number of flights from Melbourne to Bahrain pass through Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and the UAE.
That leaves the massive logistical headache of trying to re-route teams and personnel at the last minute, at huge expense. And some will fear they won’t be allowed entry on arrival.
Bahrain is going “to put in place specific measures for teams, administrators, broadcast and media” in order to facilitate entry to allow the race to go ahead, and have asked for all travel details of those attending in order to do so. In my case, that means needing clearance to arrive from Dubai, as my flight route for the opening two races is through Dubai to Melbourne and again through Dubai to Bahrain, and then back to Dubai to fly home to London.
There is no centralized travel across such a large-scale operation, so for others involved in F1 the Bahrain restrictions have already meant changing flight plans to avoid listed countries, which costs money. I can tell you as a freelancer that the uncertainty has led to a number of plans being put on hold and work falling through (in my case, a TV company not committing to broadcasting on-site from the early rounds). I totally understand, as I haven’t even booked my flights to Vietnam yet for fear of losing thousands of dollars…
Even if the first two races go ahead with Bahrain exercising special exemptions, Vietnam still looks like being a problem if it doesn’t follow suit. And Vietnam is well within its rights to impose these bans. It might share a border with China — leading to skepticism that a low number of cases of coronavirus were all cured and there are currently none – but travel leads to the spread, and as a Western Europe-based sport (a part of the world that travels regularly) F1 is just as likely to bring cases with it. So the bans could well stay in place.
One solution that keeps being brought up is, ‘Can’t the Italy-based personnel just stay out between Bahrain and Vietnam to avoid the 14-day restriction?’ Yes, technically they can, but these are real people with families and homes. On top of the financial cost and logistical need to return to the factory to prepare for the next race unhampered, there could be many personal reasons why that’s just asking too much of people. And what’s to say the restrictions will still be in place when people need to fly out in four weeks’ time?
But none of this is bigger than the global health situation. If a government decides it is too risky to have a huge number of travelers hopping from one country to another and potentially taking a virus with them, then they must do what’s right for their own security. If that means imposing restrictions that lead to a last-minute cancellation of an F1 race, so be it.
For F1’s part, by working closely with the relevant authorities it tries to ensure as little disruption as possible, but knows it is allowing such a late change to be taken out of its hands as it rightly follows the advice of each host country.
While F1’s motorsport managing director Ross Brawn has outlined his belief that a world championship race can’t take place if all teams can’t enter a country, the lack of an official statement from F1 has been the right call in my opinion. It would be completely wrong to try and put pressure on local authorities and organizers by threatening to cancel the event on F1’s side, because it is not relevant in the bigger picture.