'We expected to run the 2020 Australian GP... then everything changed in 24 hours'


In March 2020, F1 was in a race with the rapidly-spreading Covid virus. Australian Grand Prix organiser Andrew Westacott recalls the moment he realised he'd lost

Australian GP 2020 cancelled

Lights out and away we (don’t) go: Covid's rapid spread spelled the end of the 2020 Melbourne race

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

If the 2020 Formula 1 season had started a week earlier, that year’s Australian Grand Prix might have offered a brief burst of racing respite before the gloom of Covid rolled in.

But as teams arrived in Melbourne for the March 15 race, the virus had already overtaken the racing world — they just didn’t know it yet.

“There was a lot of nervousness in the back end of February, and early March,” said Andrew Westacott, CEO of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, which organises the race. “We put up a great fight and we expected it was going to happen because you only had to look at what happened with the women’s [T20 World Cup] cricket [final], on the Sunday beforehand with 85,000 people at the MCG and we were able to open and operate on the following Thursday of the event. But it really, really changed over that 24-36 hour period.”

The race may have been the first of the season, but once F1 touched down in Melbourne, Covid was all anyone wanted to talk about with the rest of the world pulling seasons, events, games, concerts, work and travel. Was it even appropriate to go on?

Daniel Ricciardo in Melbourne ahead of the planned 2020 Australian Grand Prix

It was business as usual at the start of race week


Lance Stroll, with the then-Racing Point team was inundated with Covid-related questions after his tennis lesson on Wednesday March 11, which was dressed-up as a game for the cameras – with his idol, former world number 1, and all-round Aussie icon, Lleyton Hewitt.

“I mean, we’ve all been watching the news, and checking out what’s going on. But, yeah, it’s not our call. It’s up to Formula 1. They’re monitoring it, and I’m sure they’re all over it. So, we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Of course, there was good reason for the endless questions.

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The global news cycle was already at fever pitch in January 2020, well-before pre-season testing. Italy, which would soon become an international epicentre, recorded its first case on January 31, as did the United Kingdom.

More than 1100 deaths had been recorded worldwide 12 days later, prompting the postponement of the Chinese Grand Prix. Fast-forward seven days to February 19th, and F1’s two pre-season tests went without a hitch, though McLaren alone banned anyone who had travelled to China in the past two weeks from entering its motorhome as a precautionary measure.

Meanwhile, Covid-hot spots were forcing travel bans across the globe, and just two days before the gates opened in Melbourne, Australia’s federal government added Italy to its blacklist that included China, Iran, and South Korea. That made everyone (both inside Australia and out) nervous about Ferrari, AlphaTauri and Pirelli bringing more cases Down Under.

It’s easy to forget how terrifying things were just over two years ago. On the Wednesday ahead of the race, the WHO had upped Covid’s status to pandemic, the NBA suspended its 2019/20 season, and the United Nations reported that 20% of students were out of school globally as a direct result of the virus.

The Australian Grand Prix Corporation had installed sanitation stations throughout the circuit, converted the then yet-to-be held autograph sessions to on-stage interviews, and brought in social distance measures for F1 personnel normally mobbed en-route to the paddock.

Kevin Magnussen interview at 2020 Australian Grand Prix

Early attempts at social distancing in the Melbourne paddock weren’t rigid

Grand Prix Photo

“There was, quite understandably, a high degree of caution. And the Europeans had come in, and I remember they were extremely cautious,” Westacott said.

“They weren’t shaking hands, they were keeping their distance, and they were actually starting to even wear masks on arrival at the circuit. And this was all new to us. We still expected the event to go ahead, but they had a high degree of caution. And associated with that caution, they also made sure that people were testing for any symptoms.”

Thursday arrived, and while fans flooded through the gates for the first day of the Australian Grand Prix to watch the first of the support races, the paddock was even keener to keep its distance, keeping its drivers two metres away from journalists during interviews.

Strangest of all was that most F1 personnel looked like they’d seen a ghost, a stark difference to the super-focused, highly motivated individuals we are used to. Everyone was asking, ‘What have you heard?’ ‘What’s going to happen?’

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Back in the media centre, Lewis Hamilton addressed the gigantic elephant in the room during Thursday’s press conference.

“I am really very, very surprised that we’re here,” he said. “For me it’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this room. So many fans are here today and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting probably a little bit late but already this morning you’re seeing [the then-US President Donald] Trump shutting down the borders from Europe to the States, you’re seeing the NBA’s been suspended, yet Formula 1 continues to go on,” he said.

It wasn’t long before Hamilton’s concerns were followed by the news that nine people at the Albert Park track had been tested for Covid-19 with results pending. All but the last were negative – a McLaren mechanic whose result set a process in motion that would end in the event being cancelled.

It took almost 12 hours, though – with McLaren officially withdrawing from the Australian Grand Prix at 10.22pm, and a crisis meeting held at 2am, early on the Friday (March 13th). Eight of the teams voted on holding a closed-door event, but an alleged about-turn from Mercedes squashed that idea.

That left the organisers and the Victorian state government to talk from 7am on and led to the event’s cancellation at 10.08am (83 minutes after gates were due to open, frustrating a mob of fans to no end).

Fans blocked from entering Albert Park after the cancellation of the 2020 Australian Grand prix

Crowds waited before cancellation was confirmed

Grand Prix Photo

Westacott was in the middle of it all. “We convened what we call internally a CIMRT, a critical incident management response team,” he said.

“We had a room on-circuit that had myself, my chairman [Paul Little], my GM of operations [Amy Hill], my head of communications [Haydn Lane], a few of the ops team. Ross Brawn [F1’s director of motorsports], I remember coming in at a particular point in time saying he’d had a call from Zak Brown [CEO of McLaren Racing] about the likely exposure in the McLaren team garage.

“And at that point in time, which was sort of 9.30-10pm at night, Ross Brawn, Steve Nielsen [F1’s sporting director], and Michael Masi [former race director] headed off to Crown [casino and hotel]. There were meetings through the night with teams, they were in dialogue with the FIA, they were in dialogue with their headquarters in central Europe – and we were on the phones to government, to the chief medical officer, Brett Sutton. And there was lots and lots of dialogue, lots of reviews about what we could do, and it was still on.

“At this time, we also had conversations with Chase Carey, before he boarded a plane. He went from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, then he went from Ho Chi Minh city to Melbourne. So we had conversations with him in Ho Chi Minh, before he left and then there was radio silence whilst he was on a plane coming to Melbourne, and then some other dialogue with the FIA and Formula 1.

“It was incessant, and I think [AGPC Chairman] Paul Little and I left the circuit around 2.30-3am, and we even had two conversations with Formula 1 on the way home at various times. So it was absolutely fluid.”

By midday, the news was out around the world that the Australian Grand Prix had been cancelled, with an exhaustive press conference at the entrance to the paddock — the last we’d see of Formula 1 for 111 days, and its final appearance in Melbourne until now.

Welcome back to Melbourne sign at 2022 Australian GP

A new surface, revised track and capacity crowd beckon for Sunday’s race

LightRocket via Getty Images

A capacity crowd is expected this weekend for the race’s return under blue skies and bright sunshine, after Melburnians endured the lengthy break which included 262 days in lockdown between 2020 and 2021, the longest cumulative total for any city in the world.

There are significant corner tweaks to the resurfaced Albert Park circuit, including a longer back straight, which should drop 5-seconds off the lap-time and make it one of the top-five fastest circuits on the F1 calendar.

“It’s just extreme excitement from everyone, and the circuit has never looked better,” said Westacott. “I think there’s a combination of pent-up demand, the things that we’ve missed out in Covid and obviously lots of drivers from a sporting and entertainment point of view that mean there’s just a massive vibe and hype for Formula 1.”