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Uncertainty looms as Covid-19 wreaks havoc on F1 2020 season

The season-opening Australian Grand Prix, set to take place this weekend, was called off just hours before its first practice session, after a member of the McLaren team tested positive for Covid-19, prompting the team’s withdrawal from the event.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Mar 14, 2020, 10.36 AM IST
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The virus, Covid-19, first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. It has now spread to a 114 countries worldwide, according numbers on the World Health Organisation’s website.
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Formula One faces an uncertain 2020 season with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation or postponement of its first four races.

The season-opening Australian Grand Prix, set to take place this weekend, was called off just hours before its first practice session, after a member of the McLaren team tested positive for Covid-19, prompting the team’s withdrawal from the event.

Criticised for waiting nearly 12 hours after McLaren’s announcement to cancel the race, the sport swiftly followed suit with statements announcing the postponement of the March 22 race in Bahrain and Vietnam’s April 5 debut.

China, scheduled to be the fourth race of what was initially set to be a record 22-race calendar, had already been postponed from its original April 19 date last month.

The statement from F1 didn’t lay out any specifics regarding the staging of subsequent races, saying only that they expect to begin the championship in Europe at the end of May.

That would mean, as per the current schedule, the return of the Dutch GP at Zandvoort set for May 3 and the Spanish Grand Prix on May 10 would either have to be postponed or cancelled.

That could see Monaco on May 24 or Azerbaijan on the first weekend of June open the season, provided F1 doesn’t draw up a rejigged calendar.

“It’s a difficult situation to really predict — everybody uses the word fluid, it is obviously a fluid situation,” F1 chief executive Chase Carey told reporters at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit on Friday. “The situation today is different than it was two days ago, which is different than it was four days ago. So trying to look out and make those sorts of predictions when it’s changing this quickly is challenging.”

The virus, Covid-19, first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. It has now spread to a 114 countries worldwide, according numbers on the World Health Organisation’s website.

Europe, the sport’s heartland set to host nine of this season’s 22 races, has seen a sharp spike in caseloads.

Italy in particular, home to Ferrari (who also provide engines to Alfa Romeo and American team Haas), Red Bull’s junior team Alpha Tauri, tyre supplier Pirelli and brake manufacturer Brembo, has emerged as a coronavirus hotspot in recent weeks.

With the sport also racing in countries like Singapore, Japan and the United States, just how many races the sport will be able to stage, let alone in what order remains unclear.

It will be difficult to squeeze all postponed races on any amended calendar, even if the sport does away with its traditional month-long summer break and extends the season into December.

“I don’t think anyone has experienced (a situation like) this in their lives,” the sport’s motorsport managing director Ross Brawn told the official Formula One website.

“We have to be realistic about when that can start again, which is what we’re working on at the moment.

“We have plans to rebuild the season and try and accommodate as many of the lost races as we can.

“I think people have to show some tolerance now in terms of how we build the season, for the rest of the year.”

FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS
The financial implications of a shortened season remain equally unclear. Race promoters typically pay Formula One a race hosting fee that in some cases can go as high as $40 million a year. Such hosting fees make up a significant chunk of the sport’s revenues. Just who bears the cost of a cancelled race can change from situation to situation.

Several promoters, especially in Europe where countries are restricting mass gatherings, would find the economics of hosting a closed-door event unviable.

Meanwhile, prize money payments to teams come from the sport’s revenues meaning any hit will have a knock on effect on competitors’ coffers. That can be particularly hard on the smaller teams with lower budgets.

“I don't think at this point it's productive to get into hypotheticals,” Carey said, when asked if the sport would manage to get a season together. “Are we looking at various options? Sure, but I don't think you can, at this point, sort of start to put plans in place longer term.

“Everybody hopes the world gets back to a place where it's a functioning world and functioning marketplaces. But you know, we have to deal with it as it evolves.”
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