Thoughts on the saga that was the 2020 FIA Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix

Formula 1 over the years has created a habit of making some poor decisions that have reflected badly on the sport (think the 2005 United States Grand Prix, pictured below). Over the period of 11 March to 13 March 2020, to many, Formula 1 made some ‘shambolic’ and ‘farcical’ decisions which once again reflected badly on the sport.

The reason why the sport appears to have supposedly damaged its image is not because of a tyre issue leading to only six cars taking part in a race (re: 2005 United States Grand Prix) but because of the current COVID-19 outbreak and how the sport has ultimately gone about responding to it.

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The true scale of the fallout from the 2020 Australian Grand Prix saga is unlikely to be known for a while with plenty of questions being asked as well as calls for some to resign. But if anything, calls for resignations and questions should be put on hold for the time being.

The COVID-19 outbreak has been affecting the 2020 Formula 1 season since the outbreak started in China, which ultimately led to the sport postponing the Chinese Grand Prix. However during preseason testing the threat of the outbreak was beginning to have a bigger toll on the sport as new cases were reported in Italy, threatening Ferrari, AlphaTauri and Pirelli. Things came to a head however in Australia when team personnel began to be tested, which escalated when a member of the McLaren Formula 1 Team tested positive for the virus. This confirmed case swiftly led to McLaren withdrawing from the Grand Prix which raised the tension within the paddock further.

During the preseason, Formula 1’s stance initially was to postpone the Chinese Grand Prix and to contest the Bahrain Grand Prix behind closed doors. Then once the outbreak began to impact on Europe, especially Italy, the sport stated that were personnel denied entry into a country or held in quarantine, then a Grand Prix would not go ahead. However, it was also stated that should a team take an independent decision to withdraw, as McLaren ultimately did, then racing would go ahead.

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In the week leading up to the Australian Grand Prix, the COVID-19 outbreak escalated rapidly with the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declaring the outbreak a pandemic, while cases began to rise sharply in Europe with Italy and Spain hit the hardest. During this period more and more sports were also having to respond, football being a good example where UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League matches were either played behind closed doors or postponed. This escalated further with national football associations postponing their leagues.

All of this began to show the naivety within Formula 1, and not just from the FIA and Liberty Media. For example Ferrari initially stated in the build up to the Australian Grand Prix that they wanted to use the event as a way of distracting people from the growing COVID-19 outbreak. To add to this naivety is the lack of preparation from fellow teams, the FIA, Liberty Media, event organisers and even media as to how to react, and respond effectively, when either a positive COVID-19 case was reported within the paddock or when a team did eventually decide to withdraw from an event specifically due to the outbreak.

Many sports, and to an extent especially Formula 1, believe they operate at times in a bubble. This belief is enforced in part through holding events despite, for example, extreme weather conditions and hosting events where there are authoritarian regimes or recent civil unrest, such as the case of the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix. Yet the metaphorical bubble enveloping the sport was clearly tested to the full and ultimately failed when it came to the escalation of the COVID-19 outbreak, adding to the sport’s naivety.

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One of the biggest aspects of the whole saga revolved around finances. One of the most notable critics within the paddock was Lewis Hamilton who didn’t back away from believing that he felt the only reason why the sport was in Australia was because of the financial implications if the event didn’t go ahead. It was reported that Hamilton’s comments were put to Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey, after it was confirmed the Grand Prix had been cancelled, who stated that if that were truly the case then the event would of gone ahead regardless.

It is not necessarily a bad thing that the financial considerations were the dominant factor as to whether the Australian Grand Prix was to go ahead or not since some teams aren’t in particularly great financial health. Especially when you consider that Alfa Romeo (as Sauber) and Racing Point (as Force India) have both come close to ceasing to exist over recent seasons. This makes the financial considerations over whether to cancel an event important as it could have a serious impact on competitors and the people it employs.

It is also worth noting that there are only ten teams currently on the grid with the Haas F1 Team having cast doubts over its future within the sport beyond the 2020 season. To add to the financial health of the teams, it is important to remember that the hundreds and thousands that work either in the teams, for Formula 1 directly, the FIA and racing venues who help ensure that there is a spectacle to watch rely on the sport’s finances to earn their living. Pertinent to this is the financial cost incurred by travelling Formula 1 fans who would have travelled to Albert Park, from far and wide, believing the event would go ahead only to realise as they have entered the venue that the Grand Prix would not be taking place.

Although many are likely to focus solely on the financial aspect of the Formula 1 Australia saga, it is interesting to note that around the same time the NTT IndyCar series had initially decided to hold its 2020 curtain raiser behind closed doors with series driver, Graham Rahal, stating that ‘Too much went into this to not see it through’. I feel there was an element within the Formula 1 paddock where the decision to proceed with the race weekend or not was influenced also in part by the thought of ‘too much has gone into this to not see it through’.

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Amongst the criticism being directed at the sport is an opportunity for it to learn from the 2020 Australian Grand Prix saga and resolve some underlying issues, such as working out who bears the financial burden if an event needs to be cancelled or postponed due to events completely outside of the sport’s stakeholders control.

Formula 1 is now in a situation where Australia, Bahrain, China and Vietnam have either been cancelled or postponed with the season unofficially due to start in May with the Dutch Grand Prix. However there is the belief that the start of the season will be pushed back further until June’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix with the task now of trying to rearrange the 2020 calendar. According to FIA regulations the minimum number of events Formula 1 needs to hold in 2020 are 8 (Regulation 5.4).

Either way the sport has time now to process the events in Australia and time to rebuild itself. It may be tempting to put the sport metaphorically on trial over its actions and demand the heads of those who failed to take decisive action and/or prioritised the financial health of the sport over the physical health of those who work in it or solely follow it. But everyone connected with the sport should utilise the time in processing and reflecting on the Australian Grand Prix saga, the world is in an exceptional set of circumstances currently, something that Formula 1 ultimately found out that even it was not immune to.

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