Let’s imagine – horrifying as it is – that there’s no more Formula 1 this year? What will Netflix fill season 3 of Drive to Survive with?
Amazingly, it would actually be possible to fill a 10-part series with the whole sorry saga of this week alone. And while the cameras won’t have the footage to put that together documentary style, how about a reimagining of how it went down?
That might sound like overkill, but this was a lengthy saga full of ups and downs, false endings and unexpected narrative threads that culminated in the loss of the first part of the Formula 1 season. Like all good mini-series, it features an international cast, a global story and ever-rising stakes.
We open with earliest case of COVID-19 being recognised in Wuhan, China and reported to the World Health Organisation at the end of December.
At this point, it’s not even a dot on Formula 1’s horizon, but as we progress through January it becomes an increasing concern, with F1 top brass Chase Carey and Ross Brawn in regular contact with Shanghai-based Chinese Grand Prix organisers.
Eventually, there is no choice but to postpone the race, with a decision taken on February 12. The episode ends with uncertainty over when the China race could be rescheduled, although Vietnam organisers say their race will go ahead.
But in a cliffhanger ending the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – which was due to start in the brief gap between the first two pre-season tests there – is cancelled and it’s clear losing the Chinese Grand Prix might just be the beginning.
The F1 teams are scrambling to get their cars ready, consumed with that massive task and the launches that kick off with The Race revealing the new Haas VF-20 on February 6. But in the background, coronavirus is becoming an increasingly popular topic of conversation.
The growing suggestions that more of the early grands prix might be disrupted are shrugged off, but The Race’s Scott Mitchell receives the news that the announcement of the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix is imminent while in a Parisian cafe having travelled from the lavish Ferrari launch in Milan to a Renault press event the next day.
The teams arrive for the start of the first pre-season test on February 18 with suggestions of more disruption less ridiculous than they once were and discussions ongoing with F1, which is monitoring the situation in the east and the very real possibility of travel restrictions being extended. But with F1 testing progressing, everything still feels normal.
During the second pre-season test, the word ‘coronavirus’ is heard far more often. With cases in Italy rising and the first death there on February 22, the first cases confirmed in Barcelona, and Bahrain also having occurrences, the net is beginning to close on F1.
Soon, the battle begins to ensure that F1 can circumvent any travel restrictions and teams are assured measures are being taken to get them into the countries where the early races are being held that might have travel restrictions in place.
Some involved consider relocating staff to the UK in the interim, including Honda employees who would otherwise return to Japan. But with the situation in Italy, well on its way to becoming the second-most impacted country after China, worsening rapidly there are already question marks over the Ferrari and AlphaTauri teams and whether they will be able to get to Australia. Ross Brawn says there will be no race if one team can’t make it.
With testing complete and regular assurances from Australia that there’s no chance the race will be cancelled or spectators would be restricted, we focus on the AlphaTauri and Ferrari teams and their final pre-travel preparations. created by increasing travel restrictions both within Italy and for those coming from Italy.
With a focus on the logistics departments of the teams, and the senior management who need to help ensure personnel make it, will everyone get there in time?
Things are looking good, but the Italian travel lockdown that initially covered only the north of the country builds to cover the whole country just as the final staff members are heading it out.
By the skin of their teeth, everyone makes it to Melbourne thanks to the efforts of the logistics teams to get around any potential problems and the future of the Australian Grand Prix all looks rosy. In an upbeat ending, the F1 season will be starting, after all…
With most of the personnel in Australia, a sense of normality returns. Melbourne is open for business, with carnivals taking place on the banks of the River Yarra and the final of the Women’s T20 World Cup attracting 86,174 on the Sunday before the race.
But the upbeat feeling of The Race journalist Edd Straw, in the crowd at the MCG and unapologetically inserting himself into the narrative he is constructing here owing to the neatness of this contrast, is tempered when the Bahrain Grand Prix organisers announce the race is taking place behind closed doors.
This wrong foots F1, with Chase Carey already heading to Vietnam in an attempt to shore up that race and ensure access for F1 personnel, and proves that even with the teams in Australia the disruption is not over. Even so, it’s business as usual in Australia. But it emerges a few days later that there was a confirmed coronavirus case at the MCG, as well as one at the Albert Park Hotel unconnected to F1.
With the F1 teams well-advanced in terms of setting up in Melbourne, we start with vibrant scenes of the Albert Park circuit. But amid the sunshine and optimism, the feeling that everything is going to work out is suddenly tempered when both the Haas and McLaren teams have personnel reporting symptoms potentially consistent with COVID-19.
They are immediately tested and isolated, with our narrative focusing on the McLaren employee who has reported his symptoms – who fortunately has not been to the circuit itself. The F1 media picks up the story and rival teams confirm they have no concerns from their own staff.
Despite a pleasant evening at the various beachside restaurants as the sun sets and the hope that F1 might get away with this roll of the dice, the sense of unease created by the global situation means everyone knows how big a role of the dice this is.
The paddock is in full swing on Thursday, with the teams all set up, the media out in force and the crowd gathering to watch the early sessions of the support events.
But there are concerns, especially with the World Health Organisation officially declaring coronavirus a pandemic in the Australian morning. In the paddock, the team press personnel and the FIA discuss ways to make the television interviews safer by minimising contact and press conferences are held with drivers behind retractable belt barriers.
Strangely, the media they are being kept clear from are still sharing the same space and interacting normally with other personnel. The absurdity of a reasonable measure in isolation, but one that does not seem to be applied in other ways in the paddock, is not lost on drivers. During Kevin Magnussen’s media session on Thursday afternoon, the barrier is knocked out of place and he is ‘exposed’ – raising his hands in mock terror.
But with the coronavirus test results pending, Lewis Hamilton ramps up the pressure by declaring it “shocking” F1 is there. It’s now entirely clear F1 has rolled the dice and desperately needs to avoid a positive test. And so far, it has.
Ross Brawn is having a convivial dinner on Thursday evening in Melbourne, allowing himself to relax a little now the first two Haas employee coronavirus tests have come back negative.
His phone rings and as he talks in his usual understated manner, the background noise fades out and he excuses himself.
He has just been told that the McLaren employee tested for coronavirus has come up positive and the team will pull out of the race.
McLaren makes this public at 22:21 that evening, triggering a team bosses’ meeting to discuss whether the race can go ahead. If the field drops to fewer than 12 cars, a race is not tenable, so it needs four teams to vote against it on top of McLaren.
Initially, it seems all will go ahead behind closed doors with Racing Point, Red Bull, AlphaTauri and Mercedes keen to continue and Renault, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo – standing in solidarity with McLaren – opposed with Williams and Haas abstaining.
But subsequently Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff speaks to Mercedes chairman Ola Kallenius and changes his position, joining those opposed.
The race, in the small hours of Friday morning, is known to be off but nobody will announce it, creating a baffling night of uncertainty as wrangling goes on behind the scenes. Many members of the F1 paddock are awake until after 5am awaiting news that never comes.
We end with an F1 journalist woken by the sound of a two-seater F1 car lapping the nearby Albert Park circuit, unable to believe that the track appears to have opened as normal.
We meet a group of new characters, spectators with tickets for the Australian Grand Prix weekend. Some are aware of the mixed reports about whether the grand prix will be cancelled, but most justifiably head to the circuit as normal only to be held at the gates with little information. Their fury is very clear.
Meanwhile, F1, the FIA, the teams, race promoters and government and health officials play pass the parcel with the decision.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says it’s a choice between cancellation and a no-crowd race, although it will be over an hour before this is communicated officially to the baffled crowds gathered at the gates.
Mercedes finally breaks the silence, stating it requested the race be called off and that it would not take part, which is followed shortly after by a joint F1/Australian Grand Prix Corporation statement that it had been cancelled. F1’s gamble has failed after a long night of confusion.
The episode starts with Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen boarding an early-morning flight to Dubai – around four hours before official confirmation the race is off. This dovetails with footage of the crowds gathering and the surreal sight of Racing Point conducting pitstop practice as normal while others pack up.
Then comes the cancellation. Chase Carey, AGPC boss Andrew Westacott and chairman Paul Little steel themselves for a press conference to take place just outside the F1 paddock.
In a tense gathering, they defend the decision and it’s clear they have suffered a huge amount through the overnight wranglings to ensure the race was called off correctly. Carey bristles when asked about Hamilton’s claim that ‘cash is king’ – arguing the cancellation of the race proves this is not the case.
With talk the F1 season might not start until June and Bahrain and Vietnam widely expected to be cancelled imminently, it’s a sombre time for all.
The cast of characters heads off to pack up and leave Australia, realising their roll of the dice had come up snake eyes and not knowing when they will all meet again. We end with a montage of global sport shutting up shop, culminating in the confirmation Bahrain and Vietnam have been called off on Friday night.