McLaren has withdrawn from the Formula One Australian Grand Prix after a team member tested positive for COVID-19, plunging the season-opening round into doubt.
The member of staff self-isolated on Wednesday after reporting coronavirus symptoms, and the team announced late on Thursday night that tests had confirmed they are infected with the virus.
“McLaren Racing has confirmed this evening in Melbourne that it has withdrawn from the 2020 Formula One Australian Grand Prix, following the positive test of a team member for the coronavirus,” the team said in a statement. “The team member was tested and self-isolated as soon as they started to show symptoms and will now be treated by local healthcare authorities.”
“The team has prepared for this eventuality and has ongoing support in place for its employee, who will now enter a period of quarantine.
“The team is cooperating with the relevant local authorities to assist their investigations and analysis.
“The decision has been taken based on a duty of care not only to McLaren F1 employees and partners but also to the team’s competitors, Formula One fans and wider F1 stakeholders.”
Formula One issued a statement shortly afterwards, saying the sport has been “coordinating with all the relevant authorities on the next steps”.
McLaren’s decision to withdraw throws the viability of the Australian Grand Prix into doubt, with F1 motorsport managing director Ross Brawn having previously suggested the sport would not hold a world championship round in the event a competitor was prevented from competing.
Brawn told Reuters last week that, “If a team is prevented from entering a country, we can’t have a race. Not a Formula One world championship race anyway, because that would be unfair.
“Obviously if a team makes its own choice not to go to a race, that’s their decision. But where a team is prevented from going to a race because of a decision of the country then it’s difficult to have a fair competition.”
Formula One has been dealing with several suspected cases of the COVID-19 virus since Wednesday afternoon, with nine people self-isolated and referred for further tests, at least five of whom were members of a team, including four from Haas and one from McLaren.
The Australian Grand Prix Corporation confirmed eight results had been returned by Thursday night, including the positive test that triggered McLaren’s withdrawal, with one further case “not associated with any Formula One team, the FIA or associated suppliers” still pending.
The ninth suspected case is reportedly a photographer.
The Victorian chief health officer had said on Thursday morning that he expected a positive test from any individual team member would result in several other personnel requiring quarantine and testing to prevent the further spread of the highly contagious virus.
The Bahrain Grand Prix, scheduled for next weekend, 22 March, must also be considered in doubt considering the island kingdom’s already stringent entry requirements to avoid importing new cases of the virus, notwithstanding Formula One’s efforts to work with authorities to ensure the running of the event.
The inaugural Vietnam Grand Prix, set for 5 April, is also tentative, with Chase Carey having stopped in host city Hanoi this week to sure up support for the race to continue despite the unfolding pandemic.
Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton said on Thursday, before the McLaren announcement, that he was “shocked” the race appeared to be going ahead as planned.
“I am really very, very surprised that we’re here,” he said. “It’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this room.”
“It seems like the rest of the world is reacting, probably a little bit late, but … Formula One continues to go on.”
Asked why he thought the race was continuing apace, Hamilton was blunt: “Cash is king”.