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Formula 1

How coronavirus toppled F1’s ‘cash is king’ world

by Matt Beer
6 min read

The suggestion Formula 1 put money before anything else by persevering so long with the Australian Grand Prix struck a sour note with championship CEO Chase Carey.

One day before the race was cancelled, six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton gave a frank assessment of F1’s presence in Melbourne amid the coronavirus pandemic that has changed the face of world sport.

He registered his “surprise” and “shock”, and said he was not entirely satisfied with continuing with the grand prix. And then, when asked why he thought it was going ahead, he replied “cash is king” with a wry smile, before adding quickly: “Honestly, I don’t know.”

Too late. Hamilton’s initial message was received loudly and, plenty felt, was on the money (pun not intended). However, F1 boss Carey has hit back. His main evidence: the cancellation of the race following the diagnosis of one McLaren team member with coronavirus and Hamilton’s old team withdrawing from the grand prix.

Chase Carey F1 Australia coronavirus cancellation 2020

“I guess if cash is king, we wouldn’t make the decision we did,” said Carey.

On Friday, Carey – who had flown in from crunch talks in Vietnam over the fate of that race, which has now been postponed – joined Australian Grand Prix Corporation chiefs Paul Little and Andrew Westacott to face the media and discuss the cancellation of the race less than two hours before Friday practice had been scheduled to start and with crowds of fans not made aware of the situation early enough held at the circuit gates.

Some answers were satisfactory, others less so. Carey maintained the position that F1 acted as responsibly as it could and opted to battle the circumstances immediately facing it rather than try to pre-empt a rapidly changing situation. One could take that as short-sighted. F1 believes it was simply realistic.

However, responding to the question about Hamilton’s remark, Carey’s tone shifted slightly. It became fractionally more irate and the rest of his answer was an emphatic justification of F1’s actions.

Liberty likes to conduct its business behind closed doors. There is nothing wrong with that but in this extraordinary situation it gave the distinct impression of an organisation that was not on top of things

“I’ve addressed it in many different ways, so I can keep saying the same thing,” he said.

“In hindsight, obviously things look different. There were events that evolved, situations that changed.

“We made a decision, given the lead time to come here, to hold the event at a point in time where major events were being held here. It was a different situation in the world.

“As the situation changed day to day, and in some ways hour to hour, we continued to evaluate that and make the appropriate decisions going forward.

“So I do think we were trying to digest a lot of different information, to make the right decision at the right time. And I think we did that.”

Chase Carey coronavirus cancellation press conference F1 Australia 2020

Carey’s media appearance was the first public address the championship’s stakeholders made regarding the situation. A large part of the frustration over the cancellation process and the attitude F1 had leading up to it, was the poor communication.

Liberty likes to conduct its business behind closed doors. There is nothing wrong with that but in this extraordinary situation it gave the distinct impression of an organisation that was not on top of things. A long time – around seven hours – passed between it being known there were not enough cars to take part in the race and the long-winded process of the race being called off being completed.

Those in charge of the event see things differently, and this extends to the decision to hold the race in the first place.

Little, chairman of the AGPC, made it clear that it had followed the advice of health officials throughout, and that advice changed on the Friday morning once the McLaren test came back positive.

His colleague Westacott, the CEO, added that the advice was calculated with input from regional, national and international case studies.

The argument is that F1 and the Australian GP were comfortable running the event unless the advice from authorities said otherwise. So they did not want to simply call it off. Which does, in fairness, absolve them of a certain amount of responsibility. After all, Melbourne saw fit to allow a crowd of more than 86,124 to convene at the Women’s T20 World Cup Final last Sunday.

However, as a championship and an organiser, the F1 parties could still have acted on their own initiatives. In defence of this, Carey pointed to the daily decisions being made worldwide because of the pandemic as proof of how dramatically the picture was shifting.

Again, this is rooted in logic. Nobody realistically believes F1 or its partners could have acted a week before the grand prix with definitive knowledge of how events would transpire. And people are free to disagree over whether it was right or wrong to take the risk of attempting to hold the race, as there are arguments on either side.

But Hamilton’s position is fundamentally that unknown situations should inspire caution. Especially when it is a matter of health amid an international emergency.

Lewis Hamilton Australia F1 Albert Park Melbourne 2020

“It seems like the rest of the world is reacting probably a little bit late,” he said. “Yet Formula 1 continues to go on.”

As sporting events worldwide fell by the wayside, F1’s commitment to continue became an increasingly isolated stance.

The commercial repercussions of not holding the race are widely known. Cancelling it hurts F1, its teams and the AGPC.

That supported the “cash is king” stance as it seemed like the parties were holding out as long as possible, but while Carey admitted that the actions of others around the world were among the inputs F1 considered, he rejected the suggestion the decision was financially dependent.

“I don’t think the contracts drive it,” he said when asked by The Race about F1’s situation in Australia versus other sporting competitions and the different contractual implications at play for each event.

F1’s steadfast belief, at least in public, is that it played the situation to the best of its abilities and wound up at the right decision. Which is why the “cash is king” line left Carey bristled

“We want to try and take everything into account. The situation in Australia is obviously very different than a situation in the United States or Europe.

“In many ways, this is an unprecedented situation. Certainly for me. I’ve never lived through anything like this, the magnitude, the extent of this, the predictability of this, the fluidity of this.

“So I think in that sort of situation, it’s important to get expert views from an array of places, make sure you’re communicating with everybody involved, to try to get as much input as you can, to try to talk to others and see how they’re dealing with the issues.

“All those things have value. At the end of the day, you’ve got to digest it, and make the decisions that we think are right, which I think we did here.”

F1 Australia coronavirus cancellation 2020

F1’s steadfast belief, at least in public, is that it played the situation to the best of its abilities and wound up at the right decision. Which is why the “cash is king” line left Carey bristled.

The Australian GP’s cancellation came on the eve of the race but the factors around it did not come out of the blue. And neither, Carey says, did F1’s efforts. He said they had been “having those discussions and looking at many contingencies given what we’re dealing with”.

“Were there differing views and differing opinions? Yes,” Carey admitted. “And I think that’s what everybody tried to wrestle through. But I think we got to the right place.”

Hamilton and Carey are both right, in a way.

The finances involved, and liabilities associated with a cancellation, were the chief arguments against cancelling the race and the reason it took so long to do so. The sporting spectacle is a close second, but it comes second nonetheless.

Then the process of pulling the plug also needed to be carried out in the right order so nobody ended up in a position of financial peril.

But the plug was pulled. So while cash was king when F1 arrived in Australia, it had been overthrown by Friday morning.

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