MPH: Is F1 irresponsible to race amid coronavirus outbreak?

F1

Grand Prix racing could have been designed to spread a virus worldwide, says Mark Hughes. So should Formula 1 postpone more races until coronavirus subsides?

Ferrari equipment at Melbourne for the 2020 Australian Grand Prix

Ferrari's equipment has made it to Melbourne against some expectations

Getty

I arrived in Melbourne early, just because I could. The sunshine contrasts so vigorously to months of rainy British winter, the buzz of the place a welcome respite from the dark atmosphere created by the ominous creep of COVID-19.

But the virus has been the dominant subject of F1 regardless, even shading the developing narrative of the FIA’s investigation of Ferrari’s 2019 fuel flow. Would Scuderia Ferrari even be allowed to leave northern Italy to face the further scrutiny of rivals and media in Melbourne? Because if the Italian health authorities forbade it as they tried to contain the virus’ spread, the opening race of the season would not go ahead. Ross Brawn and F1 had been quite specific about that: running the race with one team locked in isolation at base would not be fair.

“If you were some evil mastermind trying to devise something to spread a virus globally, it could look a lot like F1”

Just as that was being pondered, Bahrain International Circuit announced its grand prix – the week after Melbourne – would be for participants and media only. No spectators allowed. “Convening a major sporting event, which is open to the public and allows thousands of international travellers and local fans to interact in close proximity, would not be the right thing to do at the present time,” its statement read. One could use those exact words to have a pretty firm dig at F1’s apparent determination to keep going regardless. The Chinese government effectively caused that race to be postponed, but F1 itself seems determined to forge ahead until being told to stop.

Much as we as fans hate to see races postponed or cancelled, is ‘plough on regardless’ the responsible thing to be doing? If you were some evil mastermind trying to devise something to spread a virus globally as effectively as possible, it could look a lot like F1. We have a highly-contagious virus that takes a couple of weeks to incubate, a travelling circus of 4,000 people (plus thousands of travelling fans) staying in one place for around one week, who are then set free to disperse all over the globe and congregate again somewhere else a week or two later to do it all again.

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The complications, of course, are to do with money. Around half the sport’s income is derived from the massive race fees paid by the promoters of each race. If the promoter does the responsible thing and cancels, it cannot make an insurance claim on the lost revenue. If F1 itself cancels, it’s in the same predicament. But if the relevant government forbids the event, it’s much easier for everyone.

Meantime Vietnam – a privately-funded new event in Hanoi in which multiple millions have been invested – is at the time of writing still set to be the third race of the season. Vietnam, which shares a border with China, the home of the virus, has been particularly zealous in its precautions: widespread school closures, putting 10,000 people in isolation, regular emergency drills. But now 13 people who’d been on board a Vietnam Airlines London-Hanoi flight on March 2 are reported to have the virus. This has triggered a lock down in a neighbourhood adjacent to Hanoi. Still, F1 and the promoters insist, the race will happen.

No matter how many ‘we are closely monitoring the situation’ and ‘the safety of the people is paramount’ statements F1 makes, it’s not the body which can objectively make the calls. It’s financially locked into pressing on and needs to be released from that burden. Longer term, F1 cannot risk being seen as the entity which irresponsibly turned the epidemic into a pandemic, potentially killing millions. Until this virus is under control, we may all have to accept that grands prix are a luxury we have to postpone.

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