Across the evening of March 12 and morning of March 13, 2020 (AEDT), Formula 1 was plunged into crisis when the worsening Covid-19 crisis put the brakes on the Australian Grand Prix. One year on MotorsportWeek.com looks back at how the situation unravelled.
Formula 1 was already walking a tightrope in merely making it to Melbourne. China’s grand prix had been postponed, the worsening situation in Italy had threatened access for Ferrari, AlphaTauri and Pirelli, while during pre-season testing in Spain the virus dominated many discussions. Gradually, as Formula 1 headed to Australia, countries in Europe were tightening measures and applying restrictions in a manner unencountered in the lifetimes of most citizens. Journeys to Australia had already been rerouted, mainly to avoid potentially problematic connecting hubs in Asia, while there were fears over reaching Bahrain, given several flights had already been axed. Formula 1’s international status, with personnel congregating from various locations, made it more susceptible to the virus. Border officials upon arrival requested a list of countries you had recently visited. But the show was still going on.
On Wednesday (March 11) Red Bull Racing held a media event at Station Pier – the traditional sort of season-opening get-together at which the media and drivers raced motorised coolers – but the drivers were ordered to keep two metres away from everyone. There was a sense of it being a tad excessive. Later that evening two members from Haas and one from McLaren were placed into isolation amid flu-like symptoms while shortly afterwards two more Haas personnel joined that cluster. It meant Haas was four personnel short, accepting it may need a reshuffle, as it awaited the results and wider ramification. On the same day the World Health Organisation officially declared coronavirus a pandemic.
Through Thursday (March 12) a changing mood and atmosphere was reinforced by alterations made to the procedure for media day. Written media were requested to avoid hospitality units, and broadcast media sessions were conducted by Formula 1 itself, in order to avoid large scrums. Of the drivers who spoke about the situation the elder group – Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – were most vocal, with Hamilton conveying shock and surprise that the event was still going ahead, pointing to the US imposing a Europe travel ban, as well as the cancellation of other gatherings across the world. Those catching up after the winter break did so with elbow bumps and foot taps in a manner which still felt comical as most people entered the Albert Park paddock for the first time. There was hand sanitiser galore and a swathe of posters instructing personnel to raise the alarm if they felt they had suspected symptoms. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association issued a statement urging caution, to be “especially vigilant”, but stating it supported Formula 1 and the FIA.
On Thursday evening there was welcome news that Haas’ personnel were cleared but from McLaren came unwanted confirmation that its team member had returned a positive Covid-19 test. McLaren notified Formula 1 and the FIA of its decision to withdraw and then swiftly made the news public, at around 22:30 local time. CEO Zak Brown labelled it the toughest yet easiest decision of his career. A further 14 team members were placed into self-isolation in their hotel rooms as a precaution. Formula 1 was down to nine teams.
A meeting was called at the Crown Hotel, a luxury establishment on Melbourne’s Southbank, which was attended by Formula 1’s Team Principals, Formula 1’s Managing Director Ross Brawn and FIA Race Director Michael Masi. Brawn was effectively the senior figure, given that Formula 1 Chairman Chase Carey was on a long flight from Vietnam, having held discussions that day with officials in Hanoi over its inaugural grand prix, planned for April 5. His absence and delayed arrival was purely bad timing. FIA President Jean Todt was in Europe and kept in touch with proceedings.
A vote was held on whether to proceed with the weekend’s activities. McLaren, already out, was ostensibly in the no camp, and they were joined by Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. Mercedes, Red Bull, Racing Point and AlphaTauri voted to continue, while Haas and Williams abstained – in effect meaning they would side with the majority. Brawn agreed with a proposal to continue with Friday practice as normal, reassess at the end of the day, having also consulted with medical officials and government authorities.
None of this had been publicly communicated by any of the relevant bodies – the AGPC, F1 or the FIA – leading to uncertainty and crossed wires about what was going on, as WhatsApp groups and social media platforms pinged with messages and rumours. An official line had been expected but never arrived.
At around 3:00 the situation changed. Mercedes, having previously been supportive of continuing, changed its stance, ostensibly following a call between Toto Wolff and Daimler CEO Ola Kallenius. Mercedes was out, which meant its customer teams would also follow suit, given the lack of a power unit. Not even the drivers were fully aware what was going on though Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen swiftly departed Melbourne on the first international flight out of Tullamarine Airport, having been granted permission to do so by their respective teams.
As daylight dawned, with senior figures having had little if any sleep, team personnel were given conflicting messages. Some were told to remain at their hotels until further instruction, others that they would be coming in to pack up, and others to proceed as normal. Marshals and track workers were adhering to the usual Friday schedule, following an email issued at 7:45, while a TV production meeting was still held as the two-seater V10-powered Formula 1 car, often acknowledged as the alarm call for those nearby, screamed around the streets. There was still an outside risk that practice could begin and feature only a few cars, leading to an Indy 2005-style shambles, beamed across the world. It was abundantly clear that the event was not going ahead but still confusion reigned as the AGPC, F1 and FIA all stayed silent.
Fans arrived at the circuit in anticipation of the gates opening at 8:45 while personnel from six teams gathered outside the paddock ahead of overnight curfew ending at 9:00. The 18 drivers that remained in Melbourne stayed at their hotels. Health advice from Victoria’s government changed and thus it was deemed the event could only happen without spectators – though this information was slow in being conveyed to those fans standing by locked gates, as well as to those manning the gates. Racing Point even continued pit stop practice while some teams’ attempts at pack up were complicated by the support events needing the pit lane for their own practice sessions, held earlier in the day than F1’s FP1, which was scheduled for 12:00. There was a bizarre twilight zone in which everyone waited for the inevitable.
Eventually, shortly after 10:00, Formula 1 and the FIA jointly announced the event’s overall cancellation, though this itself was pre-empted by Mercedes requesting the grand prix to be called off. That was the threshold upon which the event could be commercially abandoned given that a minimum of 12 cars were no longer entered. Mercedes’ stance was publicly backed by Ferrari – a striking show of unity given that, pre-pandemic, there was set to be a fierce showdown over the engine saga – and press releases from all involved parties soon surged into email inboxes.
A press conference was held outside of the paddock shortly after 11:30, attended by Carey – almost straight from the airport – Masi and AGPC figures, those speaking and listening exhausted by the experience. The show was finally over. Pack up properly began, teams and personnel re-booked flights home for that evening or the weekend, and a circuit that should have been playing host to grand prix machines started to be stripped down, resembling a Sunday evening scene. Albert Park was eerie and forlorn, devoid of the noise and excitement of usual, even matched by the skies turning gloomy and blustery after a week of sunshine.
The reality dawned on everyone that a grand prix had actually been cancelled, that Formula 1 had stopped, and not a single person knew what would happen next.
It was certainly fitting that it was Friday the 13th.
It was a situation handled abjectly and embarrassingly, albeit in circumstances no-one had previously encountered, with Formula 1 stumbling into the worst case scenario. No official guidance was outlined to those who had been present and many adopted common sense thereafter in staying as safe as possible.
Hindsight shows the correct and responsible call was – finally – made. Several Champions League football matches held that week across Europe acted as ‘bio-bombs’ for the spread of Covid-19 while in the UK the Cheltenham Festival, held from Tuesday through Friday that week, was deemed to have facilitated spikes in the local area. One week earlier and the Australian Grand Prix would have taken place without a hitch; the previous Sunday over 86,000 spectators attended the Women’s T20 final at Melbourne’s Cricket Ground. One week later and Formula 1 would never have got anywhere near the grand prix happening. Across those few days nearly every single sport across the world shut down.
Formula 1 swiftly postponed the following week’s Bahrain round – which had been announced as a closed-doors event prior to the abortive Australia weekend – while other grands prix were soon pushed back or cancelled altogether. Freight returned to team bases while other equipment was sent to the UK, Canada, Dubai and Vietnam, giving Formula 1 a range of options to quickly react depending on where and when the next race could take place. Amid the uncertainty focus switched to mere survival: teams furloughed staff, a seven-week shutdown was enacted, while development and new rules were frozen and delayed. Project Pitlane endeared Formula 1 to the outside world as talented personnel utilised state-of-the-art equipment to produce ventilators, breathing aids and PPE that assisted in the fight against the pandemic. Eventually, with PCR tests, masks, social distancing, bubbles and widespread restrictions Formula 1 pulled off a 17-race championship at 14 locations from July through December. Anyone who experienced the shambles of the Australia cancellation felt the initial target was wildly optimistic but Formula 1 applied its resources, intelligence and contacts to achieve it against the odds. It kept its employees employed and provided a spectacle to its spectators. The bad publicity of that day in Melbourne was well and truly consigned to the bin.
One year on there are still restrictions, fluid guidelines, doses of uncertainty, international complications and a precarious financial situation owing to the pandemic. But as Formula 1 teams busy themselves in Sakhir’s garages, readying cars and drivers for a planned 23-round campaign, and with the vaccine rollout underway – including for personnel at the test – the championship is a world away from the nadir of March 13, 2020.