The Formula 1 paddock is familiar with strange days, but the Thursday ahead of the Australian Grand Prix will go down as one of the oddest in living memory.
The usual start-of-season excitement has been replaced with a fervour of a very different kind, leading Haas driver Kevin Magnussen to describe it as “a freaky situation”. He probably spoke for most in the paddock.
Countless sporting events have postponed or suspended activities, including the NBA in news that broke in the Australian morning.
Yet F1 has ploughed on regardless, deploying such mighty weapons as the retractable belt barrier – beloved of airports – to create a force field around its drivers and minimising contact with fans.
It’s not an atmosphere of abject terror or panicky self-preservation, more just of unease about whether this is all a good idea.
“Everyone thinks it’s weird rather than scary,” said Magnussen. “I’m not scared but it’s a freaky situation and I think everyone feels like that. We just need to take the precautions that we’re doing and see where we’re heading.
F1 is so used to being a self-contained, self-sufficient travelling circus that plays by its own rules that there’s almost a sense of denial when reality intrudes
“I’m not an expert, I literally have no idea of how big the problem is, I really don’t know much about it.
“But I can see the effects, things that are happening right in front of me. It’s really weird. Like it’s some kind of movie or something.”
Every single driver or team boss who spoke on the record on Thursday started out fielding questions about coronavirus.
COVID-19 was upgraded to pandemic status by the World Health Organisation ahead of Thursday’s activities and never before have so many people expressed total confidence in the FIA, F1 and the Australian government over the course of a single day. Save, of course, for Lewis Hamilton who wasn’t afraid of saying it was “shocking” F1 is here. Others will say similar in private, of course.
F1 doesn’t fare well when it collides with the real world. It’s so used to being a self-contained, self-sufficient travelling circus that plays by its own rules that there’s almost a sense of denial when reality intrudes. The attitude of ‘get in, get it done, get out’ might work here – but it also could backfire.
Such days are rare. The atmosphere was similar to this during the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix, when the race itself was pushed into the background by the frenzy of everyone working out how to get home amid the disruption caused to flights by Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull. While the situation was completely different, it become a preoccupation that interfered with the familiar pace of an F1 weekend.
There’s also a clear comparison with the 2012 Bahrain GP, when F1 headed back to the island kingdom after missing the previous year’s race because of the political situation in the country.
What everyone is very clearly aware of is that F1 is playing with fire
Again, it wasn’t about fear, but more of an unsettling question of whether it is really a good idea to be there – augmented by the fact that the reporting of the event outside of Bahrain painted a picture of an F1 paddock under constant siege.
This is the question in Melbourne – does F1 belong here this weekend? Are there more important concerns than F1?
The big problem here is that, as many drivers keep justifiably pointing out, they don’t really know how seriously to take the situation. Clearly, everyone knows it is serious, but what is a proportionate response?
It’s the same for everyone in the paddock who is asking themselves whether it’s responsible to hold a gathering of people from around the globe, working in very close proximity, with a six-figure crowd descending on Albert Park to watch.
What everyone is very clearly aware of is that F1 is playing with fire.
As it stands, there have only been possible cases of coronavirus and no positive tests so it could well be that F1 stays clean all weekend. Certainly, the paddock is full of hand sanitiser stations and precautions are being taken to mitigate the risk.
But should there be a confirmed case, that changes everything. And that’s before you even factor in the lengthy period when you can be symptomless but carrying it.
Nobody really knows how to feel, which is the heart of the problem and makes it impossible to commit fully to a position. As Magnussen says, people aren’t scared, but nobody wants to play a part in making the global situation worse.
Are the precautions correct? Are they an over-reaction? Are they an under-reaction? Even specialist opinion is divided so this makes it difficult to know exactly how to react. Doubly so given the knowledge that financial interests will usually override other factors when it comes to decision making.
All anyone is doing is sticking to business as usual. But doing so self-consciously means it really isn’t. And while that sense of cracking on will return once the on-track action starts for the grand prix teams, this will never be a ‘normal’ season-opener.
The priority is that F1 cannot and must not contribute to spreading COVID-19 in Australia. F1 might well yet get away with it but – if it does so – it will be more about luck than judgement.