The first race of the new Formula One season has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, a member of the McLaren F1 team tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a decision from F1 and the FIA to call off this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
The decision leaves a number of unanswered questions hanging over F1’s 2020 season, but here is what we know about the current situation and the knock-on effects it might have.
Why was the Australian GP cancelled?
Twelve hours after a member of the McLaren team tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday night, Formula One, the FIA and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) came to a joint decision to cancel the race. McLaren withdrew from the race immediately after announcing the news, leading to a meeting between F1’s 10 teams, the FIA, F1 itself and race organisers to discuss how to proceed.
The meeting continued into the early hours of Friday morning and, by its conclusion, the majority of F1 teams had made clear they did not want to race. The ultimate decision still sat with the FIA and F1, but their hands were forced by key teams pulling out of the race.
The withdrawal of Mercedes and Ferrari, although not communicated to the outside world, was key as those two teams supply engines to six of the grid’s 10 teams. By the early hours of Friday morning both had made plans to pack up their equipment and leave Australia, meaning half the grid literally would not be able to fire up their engines. F1 and the FIA waited until 10 a.m. on Friday morning to announce its final decision, citing the difficulties in getting in touch with the relevant people for the lengthily delay.
What about the upcoming races in Bahrain and Vietnam?
Both are yet to be cancelled officially, but it seems inconceivable that Bahrain will take place next weekend.
Some teams have already raised concerns about racing in Bahrain, and with 14 members of the McLaren team in quarantine for 14 days, it’s not clear if the British team would have the operational staff to take part. F1 CEO Chase Carey was on his way back from Vietnam on Thursday night when the sport was making a decision on whether to cancel this weekend’s race, but even if he was confident the Vietnam race would go ahead when he took off, he is likely having second thoughts now.
On arrival in Australia, he said a decision on the Bahrain Grand Prix was imminent as F1 teams are already raising questions over whether they should be sending staff to the kingdom over the coming days.
Why did F1 travel to Australia in the first place?
F1’s travelling circus comes with a massive logistical challenge and requires freight to be sent out to locations several weeks in advance. The first team and F1 equipment arrived in Australia via sea freight three to four weeks ago before team members arrived on the ground last week to start building garages and setting up.
The rest of the team personnel arrived at the start of this week, by which point there was no turning back for the sport. F1 argues that the advice from governments and health officials at each stage meant the race could still go ahead at that time, and it was only when a team member contracted the virus that it became clear the decision should be reversed.
Who foots the bill for the race?
All F1 circuits bar Monaco pay a sanctioning fee to host a grand prix, although it varies significantly from race to race. Combined with the cost of setting-up and putting-on the event, Melbourne’s total bill sits at a reported AU$115 million — AU$60 million of which comes from the state government of Victoria.
Considering the circuit has promised to refund all tickets, the taxpayer stands to pay a significant amount if they are forced to foot the final bill. However, most circuit contracts put the liability for the sanctioning fee on whoever cancels the race.
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In its press release on Friday, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation made clear that F1 and the FIA had informed the circuit that the race would not go ahead, and the contractual situation may also explain why the AGPC told local media early on Friday morning that the race was still going ahead even when it was clear it was not. When asked about the situation, AGPC CEO Andrew Westacott said the contractual consequences of cancelling the race had not yet been decided.
Will it be rescheduled?
Fans waited outside the admissions gates before the race was called off with a matter of hours to go before action was scheduled to get underway. WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images
Although the press release said the race was “cancelled”, it was actually postponed. The choice of words was down to a desire to avoid confusion among fans, who may have believed the race would simply be postponed for a couple of days or even hours.
Australia’s location in the southern hemisphere means the weather could be good enough to host a race in December, but it would require all of the circuit infrastructure to be ripped down in the coming weeks and put back up again later in the year. That is not only costly but it would also be met by vocal opposition from existing anti-grand prix groups that frequently raise concerns about the cost and disruption the Australian Grand Prix causes to Melbourne.
In short, it seems very unlikely.
What about holding F1 races without fans?
That is the current plan for the Bahrain Grand Prix and it was considered for Australia before F1 and the FIA opted to cancel the event.
When it was announced last week by Bahrain, it seemed like a sensible middle ground that allowed the race to be broadcast to fans around the world while minimising the risk of spreading the virus. However, the problem in Australia was not a fan testing positive for coronavirus, but a member of the paddock, so holding a race behind closed doors would not solve the problem that ultimately stopped F1 racing in Melbourne.
When and where will the first race of 2020 take place?
That’s the big question at the moment. Assuming Bahrain and Vietnam are postponed or cancelled, the next race in line would be the Dutch Grand Prix on May 3. But with the outbreak of coronavirus affecting people across Europe, that also seems unlikely to go ahead — as does the Spanish Grand Prix a week later.
The organisers of the Monaco Grand Prix have said their event is still due to take place on May 24, but with the caveat that it is monitoring the situation carefully (a situation that is deteriorating rapidly in neighbouring France).
Azerbaijan on June 7 seems like a more realistic season-opener as it has just 11 active cases of COVID-19 at the time of writing, but making accurate predictions about how that situation will evolve over the coming months is impossible.
Do the teams and drivers want to race?
Several drivers posted on social media in support of F1’s decision to cancel the race and it is hard to believe anyone in the sport will speak out against it. However, before the announcement on Friday morning, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said he was still keen to hold the Australian Grand Prix behind closed doors. That didn’t happen, but there still seems to be a sentiment in some corners of the paddock that the show could have gone on if it needed to.