► Coronavirus shuts down the first race of the season
► But not before all the teams jet to Melbourne
► There’s no firm plan when F1 will restart, either
Formula One, like all sport, is in uncharted waters thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. There will be no races until June at the earliest, yet, just three days before last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, the organisers still expected the race to go ahead.
Here’s our man Tom Clarkson’s account of a crazy trip Down Under for the race that never was…
MONDAY 9th MARCH
8am: arrive London Heathrow, Terminal 4. It’s empty. While waiting for my flight to Kuala Lumpur, I read a story about last night’s T20 Cricket Women’s World Cup final, staged at Melbourne’s MCG in front of 86,000 people. No ‘behind-closed-doors’ events in Australia, it seems – even in these Corona-infested times.
10am: Board flight MH3 to KL. The plane is half-full.
TUESDAY 10th MARCH
0700: arrive KL. Haven’t been here since 2017, F1’s last visit to Sepang International Circuit. Many shops in the airport are closed.
9am: board flight MH129 to Melbourne. The plane’s busy; I’m sat next to a Malay student who has a work placement in Australia for the next six months.
8.15pm: arrive Melbourne Tullamarine airport. “Have you been to Iran, South Korea or Italy in the last 14 days,” is the question at immigration. Adverts for F1’s season-opener, mainly involving local hero Daniel Riccardo, are everywhere.
WEDNESDAY 11th MARCH
5am: hello to the old enemy, Mr Jet-Lag. I run along the banks of the Yarra River in the half-light, past the Rod Laver Arena, home to the Australian Open. By 6am the river is abuzz with rowers; everything seems normal.
10am: Catch a taxi to Fitzroy Street to collect my media accreditation for the season, then walk into Albert Park. There’s been talk overnight of sporting cancellations around the world – the NBA, for example – but F1 remains hellbent on staging the season-opener.
2pm: news filters into the media centre that three team members – two from Haas, one from McLaren – have returned to their hotels after suffering flu-like symptoms. They have been tested for Coronavirus, the results of which are expected “in the next 24-72 hours”.
6pm: Australia officially closes its borders to anyone travelling from Italy. Coincidentally, the last of the employees from Ferrari, Alpha Tauri and Pirelli – all based in Italy’s Coronavirus red zone – arrived this morning.
THURSDAY 12th MARCH
7am: drive to the track with the crew from Aussie broadcaster Channel Ten. The mood is upbeat, but there’s an air of uncertainty. “The Morrison Government will be judged on how they deal with the Coronavirus,” is the over-riding view. The same could be said of Liberty Media from an F1 perspective.
9am: we’re in the middle of a production meeting when news filters through that Alfa Romeo have scratched an event with Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi. Clearly, fears about the Coronavirus are increasing.
2pm: media briefings. Each team enforces a two-metre exclusion zone around their drivers, while the media remains herded together. Two-tier F1.
4pm: the drivers’ press conference. Joining me on-stage are Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and rookie Nicholas Lattifi. Hamilton, who questions the cleanliness of the microphones, is the only one to take a strong position: “I am very, very surprised that we’re here,” he says. “It’s shocking that we are sitting in this room. We are seeing [President] Trump shutting down the borders, the NBA has been suspended, yet F1 continues to go on.” At this moment, Vettel whispers to Hamilton that “cash is king”. The German’s microphone is turned down, so Hamilton repeats it for him, for everyone to hear.
6pm: head to the Mercedes Me showroom in downtown Melbourne to host an event with Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Both are in great form and they receive much adulation from the audience.
9pm: While eating dinner on Chapel Street with mates, the news breaks. Two of the Coronavirus tests from yesterday are negative, but a McLaren team member has tested positive. McLaren immediately withdraw from the Australian Grand Prix, throwing the future of the race into jeopardy. I am advised by a well-placed source not to go to bed.
11pm: The 10 team principals meet with F1 head-honcho Ross Brawn and FIA boss Jean Todt (via video link) at the Crown Towers Hotel. They vote on whether or not to continue with Friday’s practice sessions. Two teams abstain (Williams and Haas); four vote to continue (Mercedes, Red Bull, Racing Point and Alpha Tauri) and four vote to abandon the meeting (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Renault and McLaren). Left with the casting vote, Brawn votes to run Friday as normal and take a view in 24 hours time.
1130pm: Ferrari and Alfa Romeo are not for turning. They tell their drivers they won’t be required, so Vettel and Raikkonen head to the airport to fly home. The race has yet to be officially cancelled.
FRIDAY 13 MARCH
2am: As Vettel and Raikkonen leave Australian air space, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff gets a call from HQ in Stuttgart, urging him to change his stance. Which he does. There are now five teams unwilling to continue with the race weekend, leaving the FIA with fewer than the minimum 12 cars necessary to run the event. There can be no Australian GP. But the news cannot be officially communicated because F1 CEO Chase Carey is in the air, flying from Vietnam.
7am: The marshals turn-up at their track posts; the Minardi two-seater starts to give passenger rides around the track and F1 TV even carries out a sound check for Sunday’s drivers’ parade.
9am: spectators gather at the gates, but they aren’t allowed in.
9.30am: Mercedes issue a statement in which they request that the Australian Grand Prix be called off.
10am: With Chase Carey now in Melbourne, the commercial details of any cancellation can now be struck. The FIA, F1 and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation officially cancel the 2020 Australian Grand Prix.
1145: A press conference is called outside the paddock gates in which Carey and local dignitaries discuss the cancellation. The mood is apologetic, particularly for the fans who were kept in the dark overnight.
1pm: In a separate interview, Ross Brawn speaks about F1’s honest intentions behind staging the race, and how quickly the situation evolved. Indeed.
SATURDAY 14 MARCH
1240am: board flight MH4 to Kuala Lumpur, en route home. Tired and a little confused, at least I have the plane almost to myself. Again.