The rapid and global spread of the coronavirus has put the entire season of motor racing in jeopardy.
The governing body of Formula 1 (F1), the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), announced that the 2020 Australian Grand Prix was canceled on March 13, just a few hours before the weekend’s first practice session was slated to begin. The announcement came the day after a McLaren team member tested positive for COVID-19 which prompted the team to withdraw from the race.
The FIA was aware of the developing situation weeks before its March 13 announcement. A month prior, on Feb. 12, the FIA decided to postpone the Chinese Grand Prix — which was planned to be held from April 17 to 19 in Shanghai — to an unspecified weekend later in the year. The FIA, who postponed the event based on the rapid spread and number of confirmed coronavirus cases at the time, had intended for the rest of the 22-race season to continue as scheduled. However, the situation quickly escalated as the spread of COVID-19 increased.
On March 8, it was announced that the second race of 2020, the Bahrain Grand Prix, would be held without spectators — a first for F1 — as a precautionary measure against fans infecting others in attendance with COVID-19.
F1 arrived in Melbourne with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the grand prix weekend as the global number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose.
“I am very, very surprised that we are here,” said reigning F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton on March 12 in Autosport magazine. “I think it’s great that we have races, but for me it’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this [press conference] room.”
The same day, it was confirmed that a crew member of the McLaren team was exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus, as well as four members of the Haas team. While all of the Haas employees tested negative for COVID-19, the McLaren employee tested positive and was quickly placed into self-isolation. The team then withdrew from the grand prix in the event other team members contracted the virus. On Friday, the race was called off.
“Formula 1 and the FIA, with the full support of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) have therefore taken the decision that all Formula 1 activity for the Australian Grand Prix are canceled,” a joint statement from the aforementioned parties read. “We appreciate this is very disappointing news for the thousands of fans due to attend the race and all ticket holders will receive a full refund and a further announcement will be communicated in due course.”
Hours later, F1 announced the postponement of the following Bahrain and Vietnam Grand Prixs, further putting the 2020 season into question. The dominoes began to fall.
Five days later, it was announced that the usual two-week summer break during the F1 season, which takes place in August, would be extended an extra week and be moved to March and April. This was done to ensure that postponed races could be held without having to cancel them and that sponsors would lose less money.
The day after the summer break change was announced, a massive flurry of changes that shook the fraught F1 season further developed. The revolutionary 2021 rule changes that would see a massive shakeup in car design and team spending limits were delayed to 2022, meaning teams would have to reuse their cars designed for the 2020 season in 2021. Furthermore, it was announced that the Dutch and Spanish Grand Prixs would be postponed and the Monaco Grand Prix, which was momentarily postponed, would be canceled.
Monaco, which is often considered the crown jewel of the F1 season for its challenging street circuit layout and abundantly wealthy setting, would not be held for the first time since 1954. Its race organizers cited reasons for canceling as uncertainties surrounding Monaco’s border control and difficulties in constructing the necessary structures and sourcing workers for the race after knowing the race could not be held during its usual weekend.
On March 23, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which was slated to be held from June 5 to 7, also fell victim to postponement.
Chase Carey, the CEO of F1, released a statement on the same day as the Azerbaijan delay addressing the structure of the rest of the season, saying that the season would go on “with a revised calendar of between 15-18 races.”
While some have speculated about a combined 2020-21 “super season” or an ultra-condensed season starting in June that would have numerous back-to-back races, the FIA has not yet released an official revised calendar at the time of publication.
With the delay of the season, F1 drivers are finding creative ways to spend their off-season while self-isolating at home. Many have adapted their physical training regimen for home workouts, with Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo frequently posting his physical activity on his Instagram story. Others, such as McLaren’s Lando Norris, have been leading the charge in video game racing.
F1 held the virtual Bahrain Grand Prix in the PC version of the F1 2019 video game, with Norris joining other pro racing drivers and skilled motorsport gamers for the race. The Bahrain Grand Prix is the first in a series of online F1 races that will take place in lieu of their real-life delayed races until May.
It is not clear when and where the 2020 Formula 1 season will start, nor how many races it will last or the money it might lose from the Coronavirus pandemic. Yet the FIA’s main priority is clear through its drastic decisions: safety for all.