Kurt Verlin
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2020 Australian GP Suspended, F1 Season in Question

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2010 F1 cars
Photo: LG via CC

The whole world is shutting down in response to the coronavirus, and Formula One is no exception. Yesterday, mere hours before the teams were scheduled to start the first free practice session of the season, the 2020 Australian GP was officially suspended. But in typical F1 fashion, it happened in the most confusing and dramatic way possible.

First, McLaren announced it would withdraw from the race after one of its team members tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. This seems to have been what really set things in motion, as before McLaren’s announcement there had been no serious talk of the Australian Grand Prix being called off.

Soon after came the report that team principals were holding an overnight meeting to vote on whether to go through with the race, and that’s about when things got really silly.

Some rumors surfaced that broadcasters had been told not go to the track in the morning. After the conclusion of the team meeting, Sky Sports F1’s Craig Slater announced that the 2020 Australian GP would definitely be going ahead — only to later rescind his comments as several other major news outlets, including the BBC, began claiming that the race was being canceled.

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But there was no official statement, and with the clock ticking down, fans and staff began arriving at the track. A story emerged that Lewis Hamilton was shocked that the race was still being held, which he believed was proof that “cash is king.” A leaked photo, initially accused of being doctored, showed Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen on the passenger manifest for a flight leaving Australia.

Five teams arrived at the Albert Park circuit, later joined by Red Bull Racing, though they all seemed to be waiting to pack up and go. Track marshals announced that track activity would proceed “as planned,” though fans arriving at the location were unable to get to their seats, instead conglomerating in one large area. The result of the overnight vote was also revealed: five for and five against the race taking place. Classic.

Finally, official confirmation came. The race would be “canceled” — a term that Chase Carey, F1’s chairman and CEO, later explained was only used to emphasize the finality of it in the short term. In truth, it’s only been suspended — as in there’s still a chance it could be held in the future, albeit a slim one.

The news didn’t stop then. The Bahrain and Vietnamese Grands Prix, which would have been next on the calendar, have also been suspended. (Shanghai would have been the fourth race but it was already suspended a month ago). F1 then said the season was expected to launch in Europe at the start of May, before changing it to the end of May. Obviously, nobody really knows.

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All of this poses a major problem not just for the fans but for the venues and the teams, which heavily rely on advertising revenue to recoup their investments. Even with reduced operational costs, the teams and circuits face losses large enough to go bankrupt. This is very likely one of the reasons it was so difficult for organizers to swiftly come to a decision. Canceling the race has much bigger consequences on Melbourne’s Albert Park and the Haas F1 team, for example, than suspending La Liga has on Camp Nou and FC Barcelona.

There has been talk of shifting all of the races to a later point in the season or even to extend the 2020 season into next year and push back the major 2021 regulation changes, but all potential solutions raise significant logistical and financial issues. Unfortunately, the 5:5 vote and the way the 2020 Australian GP suspension was handled is not a good indication of the sport’s ability to restructure the season.

Ultimately, what was meant to be the longest F1 season in history may turn out to be one of the shortest in many years. In the meantime, there isn’t much to do but wait and watch the online all-star race that former F1 driver Jean-Eric Vergne is attempting to organize as a substitute for this weekend’s race.