Lewis Hamilton was right when he exercised his right as Formula 1’s untouchable leading man with a withering verdict on the Australian Grand Prix being held amid a pandemic.
“I’m very, very surprised we’re here,” said the six-time world champion while sat in Thursday’s pre-race press conference. “I think it’s great we have races but it’s shocking we’re all in this room.”
That comfortably surpasses any criticism so far. Actually, it might be well be the first criticism uttered within the F1 bubble. Which is slightly disappointing, as while it is understandable that teams and drivers defer to F1 and the FIA and give them their support, Hamilton’s correct: it is shocking that this race appears to be going ahead.
His position is fair but not one that is easy for most to occupy. Given his profile, ability and value to F1, Hamilton has more ‘protection’ if he chooses to criticise something like this than most.
Fortunately, Hamilton chooses to use his platform on a regular basis. And so it was on Thursday. It is about time someone high-profile acknowledged the awkward, contradictory position running the Australian GP puts F1 in.
As travel restrictions escalate, more sporting events get cancelled and entire seasons like Formula E or the NBA get suspended, it gets harder and harder to justify an F1 race taking place.
When Hamilton was asked why he thinks it is still happening, he said: “Cash is king,” before the hasty addition of: “I honestly don’t know.”
There will be arguments that Hamilton and others present in Melbourne who are critical of the decision to proceed with the race are hypocrites. We all have free will. We could all have chosen to object. We didn’t, we’re here now, so any damage is largely done and we may as well crack on.
But that is too easy. Livelihoods depends on being out here. And an individual or small boycott will make little-to-no difference in real terms.
This is not an easy situation to handle and any criticism should be constructive. Hopefully such a scenario never arises again, but if it does, there needs to be stronger leadership
Ultimately we are all reliant on leaders whose responsibility it is to make the most sensible decision.
This is not about pointing fingers or saying any one body – the FIA, FOM, the Victorian or national Australian government – fell short of doing what was required. The true extent of the risks are unclear, which means by going ahead with the event there is some element of ‘we don’t know what the consequences will be, but we’re willing to proceed’, and risks attached to that.
But there has been a collective failure of leadership, because each body at some point has accepted stepping into the unknown.
At government level, Australia could have protected itself more from the influx of potential virus-carrying visitors from Europe and elsewhere.
At state level, Victoria could have instructed the Australian Grand Prix Corporation to run the event without fans (or cancel it entirely).
And at F1 and the FIA level, they could have followed the precedent set by plenty of sports around the world by taking the financial hit of cancelling the race.
“It seems like the rest of the world is reacting,” said Hamilton. “Yet Formula 1 continues to go on.”
This is not an easy situation to handle and any criticism should be constructive. Hopefully such a scenario never arises again, but if it does, there needs to be stronger leadership.
Australia’s national government could react like Italy’s, and implement a lockdown or something similar to maximise prevention and containment.
Victoria could enforce its “extreme measures” sooner. F1/the FIA could make the same decision that has been made with FE, or F1 could unilaterally decide to take the financial hit of cancelling races.
There are lessons to be learned from this, and potentially a rapid chance to prove they have been. Especially if any of the coronavirus tests undertaken by members of the Haas and McLaren F1 teams prove positive.
That will hopefully not happen, but with F1 already pushing its luck by cracking on with this event, a paddock outbreak would surely spell the end.
Health experts have already urged spectators to stay away, but Victoria’s chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton told Melbourne radio station 3AW that a paddock case of coronavirus would require other team members to be quarantined.
“If that effectively shuts down the race, then so be it,” he said. “We’ll make that call.”
The main defence of the various authorities involved in the Australian GP is that this a situation that has developed quickly. And Melbourne was not immune to coronavirus before F1, that needs to be made clear. For example, a spectator at Sunday’s Women’s T20 World Cup cricket final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and a patron of the Albert Park Hotel have both tested positive for coronavirus in recent days.
But bringing in the F1 circus was only ever going to increase the risk of greater transmission of the virus.
And in any case, it is curious and somewhat regrettable that a full public day has been completed since the outbreak was upgraded to “pandemic” status by the World Health Organisation, and Victoria’s own warning that sooner or later “extreme measures” will be required.
If thousands more people descend on Albert Park over the coming days they will be entering an environment festooned with the threat of coronavirus, and creating a scenario where countless potential carriers then head back across Australia and various parts of the world
The bottom line is that the argument nobody could have seen this coming seems quite weak.
And now we have a situation where bizarre half-measures are being introduced, introducing a small degree of separation that is quickly wiped out.
F1 has invaded Melbourne, jumped in its taxis, eaten in its restaurants and rubbed shoulders with its civilians. Putting drivers a little further away from the media, or stopping them taking selfies with fans, does nothing beyond implement a very short-term bit of distancing.
Those drivers then go and speak with their team personnel, who are engaging with the media as normal. And the media and other members of the F1 paddock travel to and from the circuit alongside fans.
I’m not a health expert. I don’t know the intricacies of the various deals between F1 and its promoter, or the promoter and the local government. I don’t know how much everyone stands to lose if the race is cancelled.
I also don’t know, with total certainty, what there is to be gained at this point by cancelling the event.
But I do know that if thousands more people descend on Albert Park over the coming days they will be entering an environment festooned with the threat of coronavirus, and creating a scenario where countless potential carriers then head back across Australia and various parts of the world.
That, to borrow Hamilton’s headline-grabbing vocabulary, is nothing if not a surprising and shocking thought.