This is meant to be a really exciting time in the world of Formula 1. We’re meant to be talking about the pecking order, potential performance and getting back to racing after a long winter.
But we’re not. And rightly so.
Something much bigger than 58 laps around a racetrack has been the talking point of the paddock, and it’s starting to look ever more like it shouldn’t have been allowed to be.
It’s all down to a lack of leadership, and a lack of preparation.
Flying out to Melbourne felt like a risk — and a logistical headache — but not the reckless move it is starting to look a lot more like now. A week ago, coronavirus wasn’t a pandemic, lockdowns were nowhere near as widespread and it appeared like a genuinely tough decision whether to proceed with races or take action that wasn’t being forced upon the sport. How things were going to develop was not a certainty.
Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but a week ago the NBA hadn’t been suspended, President Donald Trump wasn’t blocking travel from Europe, and other racing series were only making changes where there were reasonable alternatives in terms of scheduling or no option to continue.
Race organizers were confident they could put on a safe event, and F1 was more than happy to follow that advice to ensure the wheels keep turning — both literally and metaphorically. When I originally wrote this on Thursday afternoon in Melbourne, I wondered perhaps if that was still what will happen, but as the race itself has got closer, the whole situation has clearly become even more delicate.
Put it this way: On Tuesday night, before any events at the track had kicked off, I wouldn’t have said the race was at serious risk. Come Wednesday and the first team members having to self-isolate while waiting to find out if they have COVID-19, and it hammered home just how exposed the whole event is.
By that I mean (and I’m not a health expert) once the paddock convenes, if one person within it is confirmed to have the virus then it becomes difficult to see how that won’t lead to a significant number of others also needing to self-isolate. Potentially to the extent that the race can’t be held.
And that’s all before you make the arguments about the risk of vulnerable people becoming infected as a result of F1’s presence, either directly or indirectly.
Fortunately, Lewis Hamilton made that very point nice and strongly on Thursday before news of McLaren’s positive test and withdrawal, bucking the trend of many drivers (understandably) toeing the line of “I trust the FIA and Australia for making this happen” to admit his gut feelings.
“I am really very, very surprised that we are here,” Hamilton said. “I think in motorsport it’s great that we have racing, but I think it’s really shocking that we are all sitting in this (press conference) 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 this morning that Trump has shut down the borders with Europe to the States and you are seeing the NBA being suspended, yet Formula 1 continues to go on.”
He later added “Cash is king” when offering up reasons why the race was still going ahead. And he’s right.
But that’s where a wider argument comes in. The world can’t simply shut down. If businesses fail, people lose their jobs, their income, their ability to feed themselves and pay for a roof over their heads. I’m taking it to extremes, but the world needs to keep turning, just responsibly. And the picture of what is responsible is changing rapidly.
Again, since originally writing this (Melbourne really isn’t on a great time zone for the U.S.) that picture changed even more dramatically. But like I said, hindsight’s a wonderful thing, so at the risk of sounding too apologetic, I’ve tried to keep much of what I wrote earlier the same, to emphasize that very point.
Kimi Raikkonen offered a similar view to Hamilton in terms of revealing a true opinion from within his Alfa Romeo team, betraying a feeling that at the time was being shared by ever-greater numbers up and down a paddock that saw media roped off to maintain distance between drivers, and group TV scrums cancelled.
“That it is like this is nothing to do with us,” Raikkonen said. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing that we are here; probably not, but it’s not up to us, it’s not our decision. I think it would have been purely the team’s decision we probably wouldn’t be here.”
But in part that feeling was coming from the actions of others, and again those are ones that are largely in response to direct changes. The NBA suspension? A player testing positive. WEC cancelling Sebring and NASCAR cancelling Homestead? The travel ban from Europe to the US. MotoGP cancelling Qatar at late notice? Similar travel rules.
No such restrictions had impacted F1 as Thursday was drawing to a close, and that’s how we found ourselves in this position. And F1 is not alone, as a major international sporting final took place in Melbourne last weekend in front of over 80,000 people.
But the situation was still evolving. As soon as McLaren had a team member test positive, it withdrew from the race. Team boss Zak Brown told me the decision was “really difficult as a racer but very easy as a CEO.” And he should be applauded, because it was the right one as soon as that situation evolved.
With the knowledge of what could potentially be the worst-case scenario, McLaren had a plan in mind.
“You realize that a lot of sport competitions get postponed and cancelled, and it’s fair, like Lewis said, to ask the question why,” Sebastian Vettel said before news of McLaren pulling out broke. “Obviously we have to trust the FIA and FOM to take precautions as much as they can, but I think the answer that nobody can give you at the moment is how much you can control what’s going on. As a matter of fact, we are here and you just try to take care as much as you can.”
The GPDA also released a statement on Thursday that says it “has full trust in the Australian health authorities, the FIA, F1 and our teams to act with the best intentions to safeguard the health, welfare and safety of fans, officials, drivers and wider communities.” And yet, once the situation escalated with a positive case, there was no action, no response. As if nobody from any of the organizations the GPDA said it had faith in was prepared.
In the press conference, Vettel admitted there is a breaking point — or in his example, a braking point — that would see the drivers intervene. A hypothetical situation where there was a fatality due to coronavirus linked to F1 in Melbourne was put to the four-time world champion. While it seemed a bit extreme at the time, it didn’t seem unfair to push the topic that far given how quickly things were changing.
“I think my stand — and I hope others would agree — we hope it doesn’t get that far. If it were to get that far, then for sure you would pull the handbrake. We are a group of 20 guys and I think we got together over the last years, for various circumstances and various topics, and I think we share a common opinion on big decisions and that would qualify as a very big decision.
“Ultimately, as I said before, you look at yourself and I think we would be mature enough to look after yourselves and pull the handbrake in that case.”
There are clearly financial reasons — namely the loss of a race hosting fee and spectator income — that have played a major part in the foot staying on the throttle so far. And as I previously mentioned, locking the brakes isn’t a simple fix-all solution either.
But even the most gifted of drivers can’t take every corner flat out, and F1 committed to this one without knowing just how much grip there was going to be.
The likely outcomes were that the sport makes it through, takes to the run-off at the last minute or slams into a barrier. Now only the latter two are true, F1 is sliding and there is a barrier approaching fast.