F1 cancels season opener in Australia amid COVID-19 concern

Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
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MELBOURNE, Australia — The first Formula One Grand Prix of the season was canceled two hours before the first practice Friday after organizers relented to pressure to call it off amid the spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).

The decision came after six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said he was shocked that organizers planned to proceed with the Australian Grand Prix, which regularly attracts more than 300,000 people, and McLaren’s decision to withdraw when one of its team members tested positive for the virus.

The sport’s governing body, FIA, issued a joint statement with F1 and the Australian GP to confirm the cancellation following hours of speculation about whether the race would go ahead.

FIA said a meeting overnight involving the nine remaining team principals and organizers “concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead.”

“All parties took into consideration the huge efforts of the AGPC, Motorsport Australia, staff and volunteers to stage the opening round, however, concluded that the safety of all members of the Formula 1 family and the wider community, as well as the fairness of the competition take priority,” the statement said.

Hamilton’s Mercedes-AMG Petronas team said it sent a letter to the FIA and F1 requesting the cancellation and had commenced preparations to leave even before the decision was publicly announced.

“We share the disappointment of the sport’s fans that this race cannot go ahead as planned. However, the physical and mental health and well being of our team members and of the wider F1 community are our absolute priority,” the team said in a statement. “In light of the force majeure events we are experiencing with regards to the Coronavirus pandemic, we no longer feel the safety of our employees can be guaranteed if we continue to take part in the event.”

There had been two practice sessions scheduled for Friday, with qualifying on Saturday for Sunday’s GP. No fans had been allowed into the Albert Park circuit on Friday morning.

Hamilton had used the first official news conference for drivers in Australia to question the wisdom of racing this weekend.

“I am really very, very surprised we’re here … it’s shocking we’re all sitting in this room,” Hamilton said at the first official news conference Thursday ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix. “It seems that the rest of the world is already reacting a little bit late … yet Formula One continues.”

The team denied media reports that its drivers had left Melbourne before the announcement.

The BBC reported overnight that the race had been postponed, citing two unidentified sources, but Australian Grand Prix Corporation Chairman Paul Little responded by telling Australia’s Channel 9 on Friday that the event would go ahead.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said if the race went ahead, it would proceed without fans.

There were long queues of people waiting to get into Albert Park early Friday but the gates remained closed and none of the scheduled events got under way.

More than 300,000 fans regularly attend the Australian GP at the Albert Park circuit over the first four days of the season. This year was expected to be no different, despite the cancellation of some other large-scale public gatherings in Australia and around the world.

Asked why he thought organizers were persisting with the race, Hamilton said, “cash is king.”

Members of the U.S.-backed Haas team had also been in isolation but they were cleared after tests, with Australian GP organizers saying state health authorities had confirmed only one positive case in eight F1-related tests conducted so far.

There have been more than 126,300 cases and 4,600 deaths globally since the virus outbreak started in China late last year.

Most people quickly recover from the virus after experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks.

The Chinese Grand Prix has already been postponed, and the Bahrain GP is expected to go ahead at a circuit without fans.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds