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.