Formula One gambled and lost on trying to start its 2020 season amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, but its handling of a potential outbreak has called into question the judgement of those running the sport at its highest levels.
The appearance of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus inside the paddock was inevitable for a sport that was due to travel to 22 countries this year. The amount of international transit puts those working in Formula One among the most at risk of contracting the disease, and the confined working environment of each circuit is ideal for rapid transmission.
It was always a matter of when, not if.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
So when McLaren confirmed a positive case among its ranks late on Thursday night there was no doubt what had to happen next. With one infected team member quarantined and 14 teammates subsequently isolated for testing, the team withdrew from the sport to protect the wellbeing of its staff, and Formula One subsequently had to call off the race.
But instead paralysis gripped the sport, and for almost 12 excruciating hours its lack of process and preparation was laid bare, during which not the fans or the media or even members of the teams knew whether the weekend would continue.
First the event was going ahead. Then it wasn’t. As the hours ticked by the teams voted to continue racing. Then they voted to cancel the race. Two teams abstained. F1 management favoured a one-day extension and reassessment on Friday night. The FIA felt unable to act for fear of being held liable for lost revenues.
As the sun dawned on a sleep-deprived paddock Melbourne was still no clearer as to what had been decided. In the absence of confirmation to the contrary the race organiser said the event would proceed, only for the gates to remain closed to the public as the masses gathered ahead of the scheduled start of track action.
At 9am the state government announced that spectators would be banned from the circuit anyway on health grounds, but the decision wasn’t communicated to the increasingly frustrated fans as unheard, unseen and unexplained negotiations continued somewhere behind the locked gates.
It took Mercedes to end the farce. Just after 10am the team said it had requested the FIA and F1 management to cancel the event and that it would start packing up its garage. Minutes later Formula One relented and confirmed the grand prix was cancelled.
Both McLaren and then Mercedes had shown up the sport as being unprepared to make difficult decisions, their decisive action contrasting starkly with F1’s directionless dithering.
F1 CEO Chase Carey insisted F1 was simply caught out by the “fluid” nature of events, but the proactive action of other sports, so many of which have now suspended their seasons, shows this up as either disingenuous or naïve. In any case F1 had at least 24 hours from the time the McLaren team member was tested to the positive result to plan for the worst. Evidence suggests it neglected to do so.
Calling off an F1 grand prix is an undoubtedly complex and costly process, with a wide array of stakeholders to every multimillion-dollar hosting contract. But offered the choice between ensuring the wellbeing of the paddock and risking it all for the status quo, F1 appeared choose the more lucrative latter until its hand was forced.
F1 cannot make the same mistake again, and with the first four races now suspended and at least another two looking doubtful, tentatively placing the first race at the end of May, it has plenty of time to learn from its embarrassing gamble.