Amid fears that the coronavirus is already spreading in the Formula One paddock at the Australian Grand Prix, the world champion Lewis Hamilton has admitted he is “shocked” the race is going ahead.
Up to eight team members have now been tested for the coronavirus and placed into self-isolation as further doubt is cast over the running of the race on Sunday. Hamilton delivered a withering assessment of why he believed the meeting was taking place, commenting that “cash is king”.
Hamilton, the six-time world champion goes into the season opener at Albert Park as strong favourite to take a record-equalling seventh title. However he was uncompromising in his condemnation that F1 was putting its personnel and its fans at risk in holding a meeting that is set to attract at least 100,000 people to the circuit on race day just as the WHO has declared a global pandemic.
“I am really very, very surprised that we are here,” he said. “I think it’s really shocking that we are all sitting in this 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 [US president Donald] Trump has shut down the borders with Europe to the States and you are seeing the NBA being suspended, yet Formula One continues to go on.
“It’s a concern I think for the people here – it’s quite a big circus that’s come here and it’s definitely concerning for me.”
Despite doubts being expressed about whether holding the race was suitable given the global spread of the infection, promoters, the FIA and F1 have insisted there is no reason as yet to cancel the meeting. Race fees are one of the three biggest revenue streams for F1. When asked why he thought it was going ahead Hamilton pointedly noted: “Cash is king. I can’t add much more to it. I don’t feel like I should shy away from my opinion.”
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel insisted that the drivers would act collectively to desist from racing were there to be any fatalities associated with F1 from the coronavirus. “We hope it doesn’t get that far. If it were to get that far, then for sure you would pull the handbrake,” he said.
“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.”
Two members of the Haas team and one from McLaren, who were identified with fever symptoms on Wednesday, underwent tests for the coronavirus before going into self-isolation. No results have yet been made available.
On Thursday morning Guenther Steiner, the team principal of Haas, confirmed that two more members of his team had shown symptoms and undergone a test before leaving the circuit, while the deputy chief health officer of Victoria, Annaliese van Diemen, later said a total of eight people from various teams had now been tested.
Steiner expects the results from Wednesday’s tests to be available on Thursday evening but McLaren warned that the results could take anything between 24 and 72 hours to be distributed. An FIA representative explained that Melbourne has only only one facility for testing for the virus, that can only process 500 cases at a time and is currently dealing with a backlog.
Van Diemen stated if any were to return positive results, their close contacts would be placed into “immediate quarantine”. This would have a huge impact on the ability of any team to function. Mechanics and engineers all work in close proximity to one another and to drivers. Van Diemen said the test results had been made a priority.
She added that if the tests were positive, it would be a matter for the chief health officer and the health minister to decide if the event could go ahead. “It will depend on how many people have tested positive and how many potential contacts they may have exposed in the days running up to their illness,” she said.
Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos said she had not received any advice from the chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton to suggest the Formula One season opener should be cancelled. But should the tests return positive, Sutton is prepared to stop the race.
“If [the tests] turn up positive, we need to consider what it means for their close contacts and if they have a number of close contacts across a number of crews, then those individuals need to be quarantined,” Sutton told Melbourne radio station 3AW. “If that effectively shuts down the race, then so be it. We’ll make that call.”
At Albert Park on Thursday, the build up to the race continued with the track open to the public. Teams however were taking greater precautions as concern spread that the virus already had a hold in the paddock.
Most have cancelled some of their TV media sessions because of the proximity required by cameramen and interviewers and press conferences are taking place behind taped exclusion zones to keep journalists at a distance from drivers and team personnel. The Williams team have closed their hospitality to the media and deputy team principal Claire Williams suggested it would up to to the Australian government to cancel the race if necessary.
Steiner said that one engineer and three mechanics from his team had now been tested for the virus. “It is something we need to take seriously and we take it very seriously,” he said. “If somebody has something we ask that they tell us because we want to make sure that they are as safe as possible and not hide it, because that would be the worst thing to do – to spread the virus by not giving attention to it.
“The world is in a difficult position at the moment. We think about ourselves here because this is our world, but there are a lot of bigger problems in the health system where people get infected and they need to work day in night.”
The FIA and F1 have still yet to respond since the five suspected cases of the coronavirus were reported. Steiner however believed the coronavirus situation had a pace too fast for the governing bodies to anticipate.
“This situation is developing so quickly, on an hourly basis that no one can have total control over it,” he said. “I think we are all grown-ups and we need to take care of ourselves. To now say FIA and FOM didn’t give enough leadership, I wouldn’t say that because they didn’t know what was coming. We have been here since Sunday and on Sunday here there was not a problem with the virus and it just escalated.”
With the WHO declaring a global pandemic, F1’s chief executive Chase Carey visited Vietnam on Wednesday as the race which is scheduled to take place on 5 April looks increasingly under threat of being cancelled. Carey was not due to visit until after the Australian GP but events have precipitated talks in Hanoi. While he was there the country’s health ministry reported 35 new cases of the virus.
On Monday Vietnam suspended visa-free entry to Vietnam from eight European countries, including the UK, Germany, France and Spain. Entry from Italy had already been suspended. The next F1 round in Bahrain is currently still set to take place behind closed doors next weekend.
It is also understood that Formula E is shortly set to announce it will formally suspend its season for two months in reaction to the WHO announcement.