Motorsport Week reflects on a bizarre and uncomfortable week at the 2020 Australian Grand Prix, which transpired to be the event that never took place.
There is a scene in Toy Story 2 that remains one of the greatest ever produced. Seven-year-old me loved it. 27-year-old me still laughs every time.
The toys need to cross a busy highway and in order to do so hide within traffic cones and make their way towards the other side. They almost don’t make it – unwittingly coming perilously close to disaster – but all of them reach their destination.
Mr. Potato Head takes off the cone, dusts himself down and comments “well that went well”, as the toys continue on their way.
What they don’t realise is the scene of utter carnage they have left on the road, with a truck having jack-knifed and cars piled up, pointing in various directions.
It was a scene that befitted Formula 1’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, as those in various positions of power asserted that the right thing had been done.
No-one on Friday felt that anyone came out of the situation with their reputation enhanced. How did it get to this stage, and what happens next?
On a personal note I flew out from London to Melbourne on Saturday night, via Dubai, and arrived on Monday morning. There were the usual checks and a few questions as to whether I had recently visited Iran, Italy or China.
Even by that stage there was an unease about what could happen next and whether travelling for 24 hours to the other side of the world was a responsible thing to do.
As far back as pre-season testing, as the COVID-19 situation deteriorated – and Italy became a hotspot – there were questions about whether Australia could go ahead. As we sat in the media centre during the long testing days we inevitably discussed the matter and widely accepted that, given the way the Formula 1 paddock socialises, someone, at some point, will test positive.
There are naturally social groups within Formula 1 but your circle of acquaintances transcend just your designated profession. Journalists know press officers, mechanics, the hospitality crew and sometimes even drivers on a social and personal level, as well as professional.
Monday in Melbourne was a near write-off due to jet lag while Tuesday was also a struggle, though Racing Point held a sparsely-attended tennis event that involved Lance Stroll and Lleyton Hewitt. The former said he was backing whatever the FIA’s course of action was, while the latter now intended to visit the grand prix after his planned trip to tennis tournament Indian Wells was called off amid the event’s cancellation. The first couple of days also involved several flight re-arrangements as airlines rescheduled bookings involving Bahrain, with some put on planes out of the country for Sunday – prior to the race – and others delayed until Wednesday. It was a frustrating headache that with hindsight was a mere drop in the ocean.
Wednesday was the first proper build-up day. Red Bull held an event at the end of a pier in Port Phillip in which Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon raced motorised coolers. It was a typically random and enjoyable Red Bull event – doubly so given us media were allowed to try out the machines – but there was an underlying strangeness to the scene. When divided into ‘Team Max’ or ‘Team Alex’, us journalists gathered for a pep talk, but had to stand two metres away from the driver. Both Max and Alex had to be reminded of the rule – instigated by Red Bull – on several occasions. The press conference took place outside, as expected, but with TV and media forming a large semi-circle around the pair. Thanks to a combination of bad time management and traffic a group of us missed the Renault launch but made it in time for a planned press conference – which went ahead without the drivers.
On Wednesday evening the inevitable happened. It was confirmed that two members of the Haas F1 Team, and one from McLaren, had self-isolated at their respective hotels after coming down with flu-like symptoms. The tests results would not be available immediately.
Prior to the start of Thursday’s media day the press officers convened with Formula 1 and the FIA in order to implement a plan of action. What usually happens is that each driver – who is not involved in the official press conference – will have 20 minutes of media availability. 10 minutes of this takes place at the back of the garage, with a sponsor-laden backdrop that you see on TV, and broadcasters gather in a scrum to ask their respective questions. The driver then has 10 minutes with written media in the hospitality unit. The TV section was restricted to F1’s in-house crew only while written media had to either sit or stand at least a metre away from the driver, with some teams using airport-style barrier to arrange a cordon. “This is weird,” said one as we conveyed the new-look scene.
Most drivers towed the party line and insisted that they trusted teams, Formula 1 and the FIA to make the right decision, and after a few questions on the matter were keen to discuss other topics. Kimi Raikkonen suggested that he felt Formula 1 perhaps should have stayed home; for all of his soundbites and the ‘lol isn’t Kimi a joker!’ comments, Raikkonen can be eloquent and thoughtful on appropriate matters.
It was up to Lewis Hamilton to be seen as the off-track leader. He has come of age in recent years when discussing serious matters. The “cash is king” comment was a neat soundbite but he went into greater depth and his honesty and eloquence only enhanced his reputation as a thoughtful individual.
Thursday’s on-location activities came and went without any further news of the team member that had self-isolated, meaning a chilled evening of dinner and football started going ahead as expected. There were about 10 of us just warming up and about to stride valiantly onto an astroturf pitch when everyone’s phones buzzed, lit up, or made notification noises at exactly the same time.
Reader, that is never a good sign. Not at 10:15pm.
McLaren had confirmed that its team member had tested positive for COVID-19 and that it had withdrawn from the remainder of the Australian Grand Prix. Zak Brown labelled it his toughest decision as a racer but the easiest he has ever had to make from the position as overall leader. 14 team members were also subsequently isolated. Initially the immediate reaction was that the weekend’s action was likely to be called off imminently, given previous comments by Ross Brawn that the show would only go on if all 10 teams were present. The better news – that the Haas members had returned negative results – was pretty much forgotten.
We waited. Some of us went to kick a ball around. But nothing. Around 90 minutes after McLaren’s statement came a flimsy comment from the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, which said little.
Formula 1, and the FIA, remained silent. Their management and communication (or rather lack of) during the build-up to the weekend had already been widely questioned, but this was a new low of shirking total responsibility. It probably didn’t help that the Head of Comms left in early March to take up a role with Ferrari. A departure that was never officially communicated to any journalists.
Oh, no, sorry. Just remembered. There was a Formula 1 statement during the week: they confirmed the partner arrangement with Saudi Arabian oil giants Aramco. You can draw your own conclusions.
A statement was expected during the night but never came; as journalists most of us stayed awake and were contacting sources, trying to work out what was happening, as the feeling of jet lag for some descended towards delirium. “We are being told to go in as normal,” said one. “Our leave time hasn’t changed,” said another. Marshals and track workers were being advised to travel to Albert Park as normal. Most involved in Formula 1 stay either in the Central Business District, Southbank, St. Kilda or in a gaggle of hotels adjacent to the track. It does not mean large distances are involved but there is still a commute.
The team members that arrived did not know what was going to unfold. Some had been told to continue as normal while others were destined there believing they were about to start the pack-up process. It has transpired that a sequence of meetings, with some terse exchanges, had taken placed overnight involving team bosses. Some were keen to press on with the race. Others insisted there was no way their personnel would be involved. Still nothing came from Formula 1, the FIA, or event organisers. No-one wanted to be seen as liable.
Come Friday fans convened at the entry gates for the circuit to open at 08:45. Some were local but others had travelled from greater distances, perhaps even internationally, and had forked out not just for race tickets – which will be refunded – but for hotel bookings and flights – which cannot be refunded. The gates never opened. It was negligent treatment of fans that bordered on the criminal.
Formula 1’s curfew for mechanics lifted at 09:00 but still there was no statement. Personnel from AlphaTauri, Haas, Racing Point, Red Bull Racing, Williams and Alfa Romeo made their way through the paddock turnstiles. McLaren was not present. Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault personnel were also not in attendance. This was not the split of who did or who did not want to race. Some personnel even went to undertake pit stop practice as usual. It was an utterly bizarre scene. It also transpired that Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen had already left the country on the early morning flight out of Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.
Some of it was complicated by Chase Carey being in attendance in Vietnam to sort out the situation there, meaning he did not arrive in Melbourne until Friday morning, while who knows where FIA President Jean Todt was. Ah, no, we do know. He was at a business event in Valenciennes, France. We know this because as Friday morning developed he (or rather his press team) put out a Tweet, and photo, thanking the event organisers. Todt was obviously involved in Melbourne-related discussions but image-wise it only stank of total oblivion to a critical situation.
Finally, just after 10:00 – some seven or eight hours after it was expected – the grand prix weekend was cancelled. Even then, while Formula 1 and the FIA issued one statement, the AGPC issued another.
“Following the confirmation that a member of the McLaren Racing Team has tested positive for COVID-19 and the team’s decision to withdraw from the Australian Grand Prix, the FIA and Formula 1 convened a meeting of the other nine team principals on Thursday evening,” read an FIA statement. “Those discussions concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead. The FIA and Formula 1, with the full support of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) have therefore taken the decision that all Formula 1 activity for the Australian Grand Prix is cancelled.”
The AGPC put the decision firmly elsewhere. “At 9am today the Australian Grand Prix Corporation was advised by Formula 1 of their intention to cancel all Formula 1 activity at the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix,” read the statement. “In light of this decision and updated advice this morning from the Chief Health Officer of the Victorian Government’s Department of Human and Health Services, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation confirms the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix is cancelled immediately.”
At least by this time the weekend’s activities were confirmed as done and dusted, though as team statements backing the decision came in one-by-one there was still one comical scene. Personnel were initially not allowed into the pit lane to start pack-up until it was clear that the support categories were also called off.
A press conference was called for 11:30 – delayed for 15 minutes – involving AGPC CEO Andrew Westacott, Chairman Paul Little, Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey and FIA Race Director Michael Masi. They stood at the paddock entrance – ironically sharing a microphone – while journalists, broadcasters and photographers crowded together in a semi-circle.
Westacott spoke well, and calmly, and was clearly distraught at having to abandon the event. Nonetheless, there was still culpability for not calling it off sooner. Carey, meanwhile, had to fumble for answers he did not have, promises he knew he could not make, while wary of his words being misconstrued. He was understandably tired, dressed differently to his usual attire, and was more agitated than usual when fielding questions. He insisted that the “fluid” nature of the situation meant that Formula 1 and its partners had made the right decision. To a certain degree he could not be faulted, for the COVID-19 outbreak has been fast-moving, but from day one Formula 1 looked utterly reactive – with all parties shirking responsibility – rather than proactive. Other governing bodies and commercial rights holders in other major sports had acted far more decisively. A barb at Hamilton – “I guess if cash was king, we wouldn’t have made the decision we did today” – was the unnecessary headline-grabbing quote that portrayed Carey in a very bad light. Ultimately as CEO and Chairman of the championship the buck stops with him.
And then at 12:00 – just as FP1 was due to begin in a parallel universe – it began to rain.
After re-booking flights and sorting out life, I walked with a colleague around Albert Park’s lake, just as storm clouds gathered to portray the CBD backdrop in a very evocative manner. It was a bizarre sight. The race track was slowly being dismantled, merchandising stalls taken down, while the funfair section was empty and desolate. It had the feeling of one of those apocalyptic movies, with just the sounds of litter scattering across the ground, the trees rustling on a windy day, and the seagulls swooping and chirping.
It was at this point we started to ponder the ramifications of what is going on. This isn’t just a Formula 1 race that has been cancelled. What now for the teams, the employees, the freelancers, the contractors, the vendors, the venues, not just in Formula 1 but Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula E and beyond. Maybe some won’t ever come back. We just don’t know.
Through Friday evening we were awaiting confirmation of the next two rounds being off but even when that arrived Formula 1 and the FIA were on different pages. Bahrain and Vietnam were confirmed as postponed, but spot the difference.
“Formula 1 and the FIA expect to begin the Championship in Europe on 1st May,” read an FIA statement.
“Formula 1 and the FIA expect to begin the Championship in Europe at the end of May,” read a Formula 1 statement.
Other than that, the statements were practically identical. Really, guys, how hard is it?
Realistically no-one expects Formula 1’s 2020 season to get going until the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, on June 7, at the absolute earliest.
And the reality is we don’t know. No-one knows. And anyone that makes definitive statements or declarations doesn’t know either. We are at the mercy of a virus and of government advice. Formula 1 is our world but is small fry on a global scale.
We can only hope that at some stage the world – and Formula 1 – can return to the normality that we once took for granted.