With COVID-19 threatening the 2020 Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix, the pre-race drivers’ press conference still took place on Thursday in Melbourne.
In the spotlight were rookie Nicholas Latifi (Williams) along with veterans Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Daniel Ricciardo (Renault).
Q: Now, it’s been a complicated build-up to this first race of the season, so I’d like to start just by asking you about your preparations. Daniel, what have you been up to and why is it so difficult for an Australian at home. It seems that this race track, there’s not much love between Australian drivers and Albert Park?
Daniel Ricciardo: I guess there haven’t been many Australians, so like the statistics… It’s a game of percentages, right? But anyway, I hope this one is good. I feel like one year’s good, one year’s not, but I think I’m due a good one. I’ve been preparing, been preparing well. I don’t know how to sit; everyone’s trying to sit away from each other. We’ll get cosy. What have I been doing? I don’t know, just the usual. Since testing: back in Europe, bit of simulator stuff, and then I was home for a few days. It’s good to be here.
Q: How about the motor – the new car? What did you learn about it in testing? Do you feel you can make a step forward from last year?
DR: Yes, I do. I think the test ended well for us. Day three of week two was a lot more promising and both my feedback and Esteban’s, you could see our expression when we got out of the car, it was certainly a lot more optimistic, so that was encouraging. I just look back at last year, the whole build-up and everything. I was watching some onboards before and I don’t know, I can just see me from the outside and I’m like, “yeah, I’m a lot more comfortable in this car now”, so I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do.
Q: It’s your 10th season in Formula 1?
DR: Yeah, someone reminded me…
Lewis Hamilton: Jeez!
DR: I know, kinda old, huh!
Q: It’s your 14th, Lewis.
DR: I’m still a baby. Thanks guys.
Q: Let’s move on to the baby, Nicholas Latifi, your first grand prix this weekend. Just describe how you feel? An emotional moment, I guess?
Nicholas Latifi: Yeah, definitely very exciting. When I was first announced as the race driver last year this weekend seemed so far away. But day by day, going through all the winter preparations and everything, just kind of closing in on this weekend. Yeah, a lot of anticipation from myself and from the team as well, but yeah, really just happy and grateful to be here and just can’t wait to get the weekend underway.
Q: And more nerves than last year when you were in Formula 2?
NL: Right now, no, I would say there are not really any nerves at the moment. I’ve kind of said that from already starting winter testing as the official race driver, for me it just felt like a continuation of the work I was doing with the team last year. I was already really comfortable in the team environment. To be honest, all the stuff that made it feel a bit more like I was the race driver was all the external – all the media, the fan interactions, it’s just at so much more of a higher level. Right now everything is still calm. Maybe once I’m waiting on the grid and the lights are about to go out, that’s probably when I’m going to notice…
Q: You make a reference to the work you were doing with Williams last year, you did six FP1 sessions, so you knew about last year’s car, you drove it. How much of a step forward is this year’s car?
NL: It’s definitely a step forward. It’s difficult to quantify how much, because it’s always the same in winter testing, you never really know what people are doing with engine modes and fuel levels, but just from my first feeling in the car it was definitely much nicer to drive, giving the driver much more confidence to push and attack the corners, which is what you want. We’re going to see come Saturday where we are in the pecking order. We’re optimistic it definitely is a step forward but we’re just going to have to wait and see just how much.
Q: Well, good luck with that. Sebastian, talking about differences from last year to this year. From the outside winter testing back in Europe looked a little bit inconclusive for Ferrari. What can you tell us about it?
Sebastian Vettel: I think testing is always inconclusive. You never know where you are and that’s the good thing about coming here and [we can] finally get going and racing. I think testing has, not a lot, but it does have its nice sides, aspects, but really racing is what it’s about, so as I said, it’s nice to come here and finally know where you are.
Q: But like Nicholas and Daniel, can you say that this year’s car is a clear step forward?
SV: It is but I think that’s probably true for everyone. That’s the idea of having a new car, obviously learning from the experiences of the year before, so I think it’s true to say that everybody had got a better car this year, but it always depends on where you are relative to the others. So I think our car is doing what we expected. It is a step forward, it feels better, but ultimately it matters where you are next to all the others.
Q: Well, you’ve always gone well here at Albert Park, you’re going for victory number four this weekend. What is it about your relationship with this track? Why do you go so well here?
SV: I don’t know. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like the track. I think it’s a fun track and generally it feels like the right place to kick it off, great atmosphere. Maybe my biggest advantage is that I’m not Australian. And Lewis as well. I think Lewis has done really well here as well. No, because you opened up by saying that Australians haven’t done really well here!
DR: The irony is my best year was the year you had an Australian, but then that got taken away.
Q: 2014, the year you finished second for a bit.
DR: Yeah. Anyway, I’m still bitter.
SV: I don’t know; I was trying to joke. I know, I’m German, so it’s probably not what you expect. I think everybody just loves the track and that’s myself included. I think it has a nice flow to it, a nice rhythm. It’s good that they didn’t resurface much of the track, keeping some of the bumps, some of the nature of the track. I think it’s quite fast, considering it’s a semi-street circuit. Yeah, I like it.
Q: Thank you. Lewis, coming to you, before we talk about track stuff, I just wanted to ask you about your detour on the way here to New South Wales. Tell us what you were doing up there and what you found?
LH: Yeah, I got here on Monday morning and went straight from the airport in Sydney out to the Blue Mountains and got to see… Through the winter I was watching the news and seeing the devastation out here and how it was affecting people but more so than anything how many animals that perished. That, for me, was too big a number to even comprehend. I wanted to get out here before that but it just wasn’t possible and I was like ‘when I first get here I want to go and see it first-hand for myself’. So, I landed, took a two-hour drive up to the Blue Mountains and slowly started to see a lot of the burnt trees, the forest, as far as the eye can see. A really beautiful place. There was already regrowth, but I went to visit an organisation, Wires, that was helping during the whole period, whilst the animals were suffering, while the fires were going on, and they are helping rehabilitate some of the animals. It’s all just people living in local homes around the area who volunteer and so it was really quite amazing, they are the heroes. It felt amazing to see it for myself and see all the hard work that has been done and it meant a lot to them, the people that I met, that we took the time to go out.
Q: Daniel, were you here in the height of summer when the bush fires were at their worst?
DR: I was. I was home, but home for me is Perth, so west coast. We weren’t affected, nothing to the extent of the east. For me to be at home but to see the engagement from the whole world, from all over, that was really nice. It was affecting our country, my country, and to see the generosity from everyone, from all parts of the globe, that was a really good touch.
Q: And Lewis, just on the on-track stuff, you completed more laps than anybody else in winter testing, how confident are you coming into this race?
LH: I don’t really ever use the word confidence. I think we just worked as hard as we could. The runs went well or the days went well in Barcelona. We did leave with reliability issues, which I know the guys have been trying to move mountains over the past couple of weeks so we arrive in the best shape possible. So I truly believe in all the hard work we’ve done. We’re hoping we start off on the right foot. I think we arrive here with two less days of testing compared to last year. I think we’ve got quite a good grip on the car and we arrive as best prepared as we can be. As Seb was saying, it’s going to be interesting to see where we all stand, but that’s the exciting part of coming to your first grand prix.
Questions from the Floor
Q: (Frederic Ferret – L’Equipe) Question to Lewis: with the winter testing, is there some driver and some car you may see as your main rival for your title?
LH: Force India, maybe?
DR, NL: Racing Point.
LH: I don’t call it Racing Point, because I don’t like the name! I prefer Force India. No, I think it’s the same – Ferrari and Red Bull. I think Red Bull have been particularly strong so I don’t really know where they stand between them, but Red Bull were realty strong particularly at the end of last year. Obviously Ferrari have taken a little bit of a step, it seems they may have… they have definitely taken a bit of a step back power-wise, but maybe the car is better, so we’ll see tomorrow when we get in the car over the next couple of days how that plays into effect.
Q: Sebastian, do you feel like you have taken a step back power-wise?
SV: Well, we’ll see. I don’t know if others… I think we’ve focused on all areas and also on the engine in the winter and as I said we will find out this weekend, probably in qualifying conditions when everybody is trying to get to their maximum, and we finally see where we are, not just on power but also on the car.
Q: (Alex Kalinauckas – Autosport) Lewis, regarding the Coronavirus situation, are you comfortable having travelled all the way to Australia and are you satisfied with what Formula One and the FIA have done so far regarding that situation?
LH: I felt OK travelling out here. Naturally, being on a flight with God knows how many people and then stopping in an airport full of so many people, I didn’t really think too hard on it. I was just trying to make sure I was taking all the precautions I could in terms of not touching things and always using hand sanitizer. I am really very, very surprised that we’re here. I think motorsport is… I think it’s great that we have races but for me it’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this room. So many fans are already here today and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting probably a little bit late but already this morning you’re seeing, with Trump shutting down the borders from Europe to the States, you’re seeing the NBA’s been suspended, yet Formula 1 continues to go on. I don’t know: I saw Jackie Stewart this morning, you know, looking fit and healthy and well in the lift. Some people, as I walked into the paddock, some elderly individuals. It’s a concern, I think, for the people here. It’s quite a big circus that’s come here. So it’s definitely concerning for me. So, no, is your answer.
Sebastian, anything you’d like to add?
SV: Not really. I think it’s very difficult to have a fair judgement. Of course, you realise that a lot of sport, competitions, big events get postponed and cancelled and, like Lewis said, it’s fair to ask the question: why are you here? Obviously we have to trust the FIA and FOM to take precautions as much as they can, but I think the answer that nobody can give you at the moment is how much you can control what is going on. As a matter of fact, we are here. You just try to take care as much as you can.
Daniel, while we’re on the topic, anything you’d like to say?
NL: Nothing really more to add. I think the guys summed it up quite well, just taking all necessary precautions and following the advice of the professionals.
Q: (Phil Duncan – PA) Lewis, just as a follow-up to that. We’ve seen several team members have gone into isolation because they’re been tested for the Coronavirus. If any of those results come back positive do you think that the race should be postponed or called off on Sunday?
LH: It’s not for me to make that decision – but I heard that result’s not going to come back for five day or something. Coincidentally. So… yeah. Unlikely.
Q: (Matt Dixon – The Times) Lewis, you’ve been outspoken where others have maybe not dared to be about Corona. What do you think is the reason this race is still going on? Obviously there are… well, is it business interests? Why are we still here?
LH: Cash is king. Honestly I don’t know. I can’t really add much more too it. I don’t feel like I should shy away from the fact of my opinion. The fact is we are here and I just urge everyone to be as careful as you can be. Touching doors and surfaces, and I hope everyone’s got hand sanitisers. And, really for the fans, I really hope they’re taking precautions. I was walking through and seeing just everything going ahead as normal, like it’s a normal day – but it’s… I really don’t think it is. I just hope all the fans stay safe. I really hope we go through this weekend and we don’t see any fatalities, or things that come along in the future.
Q: (Ben Hunt – The Sun) Lewis, thank you for having the balls to say your piece there and speak out. Everyone else seems to be hiding behind ‘we trust the FIA’, which seems pretty mad. I want to know – this is all four drivers – how you would respond if the FIA, F1 decided to take the decision to suspend the first couple of races of the season, maybe start in Europe. How would you take that? Would that be welcome? Sensible? What’s your opinions?
Let’s start with Daniel.
DR: You really want me to talk? Honestly, from my side, I have to put my trust in the FIA and also, I think, we may all have opinions but at the end of the day I’m here to compete and race cars. I’m not really much more than that in this situation. There’s people who are spending more time investing in it than I am and I’m kind of just following guidelines. I came here knowing we were going to compete so, to be honest… I don’t want to say selfishly… but I’ve just got my head down, focused on the race and I’ve been training and preparing and obviously getting a bunch of emails with guidelines and this and that but I honestly haven’t spent too much time digging into details. There are certainly people around me doing that, so yeah, it’s a tough one. I know it’s real but, as maybe Seb touched on, I don’t know who knows really, at least in this room, we don’t really know the extent of it or how quickly it can spread, or what level it’s at. It’s kind of left to the others for now. It’s mixed. The racer in me is happy that I’m here, for sure.
Sebastian, if the first couple of races were suspended, postponed… what would your reaction be?
SV: Well, one way or the other, I think you expect and you hope that we take the right decision, or the sensible decision. So, if that’s the case then there’s probably reason for it. If it’s not the case then you rely on the fact that maybe there’s not enough reason for it. As I said, I don’t think I’m the one to judge, and I think, to be completely straight, we are probably in a lucky situation, as in, obviously we are exposed to people, and so on, but I think we can largely control our own situation. Obviously in the car we don’t even have a passenger. What I mean is, you try to control the situation for yourself first, as much as you can. That’s selfish but I think everybody in this regard is selfish. You see some people being more relaxed about handshakes, others less. Now some laugh it off, some take it very serious. I think, as I said before, my stand on it is that it’s very difficult at the moment to really categorise and say that it is great, I don’t know, serious, or not serious – but that’s why you have to ultimately put yourself into other people’s hands and trust them. I think we all did getting down here. The flights weren’t cancelled, we were all allowed to travel, so we trusted whoever we flew with. We are sitting in this room. Within that, I think that you are within your own bubble and you try to control it as much as you can. I think that’s valid for us sitting here on the couch, that’s valid for people sitting opposite us and it’s valid for people outside and around the globe. I think it’s probably right to take care and take precaution. How much is necessary, and who’s responsible and whatever other questions, I think there are a lot of questions at the moment that are very difficult to answer.
NL: Obviously for me, it being my first race in Formula One, it definitely is a bit of a strange feeling to have it all starting like this but, again, me, nor any of us are qualified to really make that decision on if the race goes ahead or not. I mean, if the coming races, including this one, don’t end up going ahead, then just have a bit of a holiday I guess. There’s not really much more influence that I’m going to have on the decision. And, again, just following the advice of the professionals really.
And the debut would have to wait…
Q: (Giles Richards – The Guardian) To all drivers. We now understand that at least four team members have been tested for the Coronavirus and up to eight. Now, if one of these comes back with a positive result, given how close-knit, and how closely everyone works together in the paddock, is it not of concern to you that it will probably suggest that the Coronavirus has taken hold in the paddock already?
SV: I don’t know. How can you answer that? You can’t. You don’t know. Maybe yes – and I think as far as, and I’m not an expert, but as far as I understand, some people will have it and you don’t see anything. They show no symptoms. You might have it. Sorry, but who knows. Maybe to some degree you never know and to another degree you will. So, I think the precaution obviously, as far as I understood, that these people got checked. I don’t know how long it takes, if it takes five days or shorter, I have no idea. I think you will probably have to cross that bridge when it comes to it. Then, there’s always an argument that we should have seen this before, we shouldn’t… I think we are all here happy in a way to race because we all love racing. We want to race – but you can’t ignore the fact that something is going on and you have to be aware of the situation – but answering these questions, I think nobody can.
Q: (Craig Slater – Sky Sports) Sebastian, the FIA have had this inquiry into your power unit. They haven’t found the team guilty of any specific wrong-doing. Are you disappointed then that they didn’t clear the team, could this have been handled better in terms of what’s been said in public? And to Lewis: it’s been a friendly rivalry between Mercedes and Ferrari; are the gloves off now?
SV: I took the gloves out once to Lewis and it wasn’t the right thing to do so I said it afterwards. Remember Baku!
DR: Well done Baku.
SV: Everyone remembers that race so… who won the race? Anyways, what was the question, sorry?
Q: (Craig Slater – Sky Sports) That the team wasn’t cleared, Sebastian, given that they couldn’t find a specific illegality with the engine.
SV: Um, well, I don’t know. As far as I understand it was cleared so I think… For me it’s very simple. Obviously I trust my team to do the right things, within the regulations, at all time. I think we all trust, all drivers, the governing body as in the FIA, to do their job for all teams on the grid. I think that’s probably the answer, so there’s not much else to add. If you have further detailed questions and so on, then I’m not the one to answer because I think the cars are quite complex now so probably I’m not the best person to give you enough insight. I think the other one, that I would like to add, which I think from your second question, I can smell might be a hint, is that for me it doesn’t change anything in terms of the relationship that I have with other drivers and in this particular (instance) with Lewis. I think the respect that we share we’ve grown over the years is untouched and I don’t think is at threat.
LH: What was the question?
Q: Are the gloves off?
LH: Well, no. Firstly I think I repeat what Seb has just said. Between us our respect has continued to grow over the years and that doesn’t change. I think that what goes on in the background between teams and the governing body, I think is a separate issue. I think it could have been handled better, for sure but again, that’s really something that should be directed to Toto. I think for us athletes, us drivers, we just want to arrive at the races. Naturally all the teams are different in their performance but you want to feel that you’re playing on fairgrounds. That’s the approach that we have and I think… I don’t really know. I won’t add too much more to it because it will just cause more trouble.
Q: (Roger Barne – Beyond the Racing Line) There’s a bit of talk about having some changes to the track in the next couple of years here in Melbourne. What’s the drivers take on what would you like to see at Albert Park track changed in the next couple of years? Nothing, Seb?
SV: I haven’t heard anything.
Q: (Roger Barne – Beyond the Racing Line) Possibly resurfacing, widening the track, possibly going on at 12 to lengthen that end to add another straight?
DR: I’m aware of some of it so I guess I can talk on it a bit. As a driver, I think as Seb touched on earlier, we do enjoy this track. I don’t know any driver that doesn’t. It’s fast and flowing. In a way, it’s a bit like Monaco, like it’s a pleasure to drive by yourself but for overtaking come Sunday it’s not always the best track on the calendar. I think the overtaking average is certainly one of the lowest. We were asked our opinion – I guess a few of us – if we thought the track could do with some changes and yeah, we were told there were some areas on the track they could widen or try and change the angle of the corner, to try and open it up and create maybe bigger braking zones or basically more chances for overtaking. I think this is what is trying to be achieved. So I’m definitely for that because we’ve also driven this layout for a while so with a few corners changed then if it did make the show on Sunday better I think we would all be OK with that.
LH: Yeah, no, I agree with what Daniel said. I think it’s firstly, this is a fantastic place to come to every year, I think the best opening race in a country that probably Formula One’s ever had. It’s such an exciting place to come to and the track is fantastic but probably a bit like Monaco, a little bit more so on a single lap for us in qualifying, but in the race I think it’s the third or fourth most difficult track to overtake on so if they were to make some modifications, make it longer, particularly right now when we’re getting faster and faster, you’re probably going to see less overtaking I would imagine, potentially this year also being that we have more downforce, more drag which affects the car further behind even more so. So yeah, I’m definitely for them adding some really cool modifications. I just hope that we do stay, keep the race here. I don’t really know what they would have to do to the actual current layout; just extending that’s going to make a big difference. I don’t know the answer to that but I’m all for it.
SV: I haven’t seen any suggestions. In a way it would be sad to change. I get the point but I don’t know, obviously next year it’s supposed to change a lot in terms of racing, so maybe it’s wise to wait for that before you rebuild the whole track, might also be the cheaper option, let us spend the money on the cars before you spend the money on the track. I think it’s probably best to wait and see what happens next year and then we’ll see. If they make the track even nicer then go ahead but usually with those things they end up doing it not so nice.
Q: Nicholas, how was your track walk yesterday?
NL: Yeah, I was going to say, I can’t really comment so much on that because I haven’t driven it. We have been around the track four times already; I did come out quite early. It looks like a great track to drive; I’ve heard many great things about it. I ran twice. I came on Saturday; I was here quite early. Yeah, walked it twice. I’m just going to have to wait and see.
Q: (Inga Strake – Pole Position Reports) Lewis, your team press release said that at the beginning of the season you feel really fit, probably fitter or more ready than before. How much is that is down toward what you’ve been posting over the winter, your vegan nutrition and what did the change in nutrition mean for you? And is it more about food and eating, what you take in or also about sustainability and environment?
LH: I think my health has just got better and better over the last couple of years as I’ve gone to the plant-based diet. It is not the easiest thing to straight away go to and you’re constantly learning about the foods and discovering more foods… things that you probably would never… no, things that I would have never really eaten before, to give you some variability. I focused on having consistent good solid meals; I had a chef during the winter so that was really why it was particularly a better period of time for me but I do feel a large part of the reason I have gone that way is because of the environment and for the animals. It’s a little bit difficult, sitting up here, because I know not all of us do… you know, vegan, not everyone continues but not for me, I’ve definitely felt the benefits from that on the health side of things and physically, it’s just enabled me to… you know people do think you’re going to lose muscle if you don’t have your protein, that’s… a lot of the time people say I need my protein but it’s absolute rubbish. You just need to do some reading on line. I’ve managed to… last year I bulked up, I put a lot more weight on. This winter I trimmed down, like cut but have more muscle and I’m able to lift more weight than I’ve ever done before and I haven’t been able to run further than I’ve ever been able to run before. That’s just enabled me to train better. But you’ve seen it in other sports, other sportsmen and women around the world are trying these things. Serena (Williams) has been working on it, Djokovic, you’ve got a bunch of people out there that are doing it. I think it’s a positive and important way to go for us all. I think there are lots of areas that need to… not just in food but there’s a lot of things that we all need to do better moving forward but one step at a time.
Q: Have you ever tried a 40-hour fast, Lewis?
LH: Why would you do that?
DR: Why do you ask? He asked me in Abu Dhabi. What was my answer? I was bored, wasn’t I?
Q: You said you’d done a 40-hour fast.
DR: Yeah, so a bit of experimenting so I guess on the diet stuff so, lot of vegan stuff now you hear and fasting comes in. I guess I’ve stayed open-minded through it all so yeah, I tried a little bit of fasting over the last few years but yeah, I’m not going to go on a spiel and say I did it because of this reason, that reason. I just… a few people did it and said it was quite good so I thought I’d try it. Did you do it?
Q: (Jon McEvoy – Daily Mail) Just to go back, obviously a serious subject, the coronavirus, would there be any circumstances if there were more incidence of people getting ill or, God forbid, someone involved in the sport, died, at which you guys would say we’d rather not race? You say we’re already here which we obviously are but there will be 100,000 in on Sunday and the day before and that could be alleviated if there were no race. Would any of you consider lobbying to go down that route?
SV: My stand, and I think I probably… I hope others would agree, we hope it doesn’t get that far. If it were to get that far then for sure you pull the handbrake and I think we are a group of 20 guys and I think we’ve got together over the last years for various circumstances on various topics and I think we share common opinion on big decisions and that, I would qualify, is a very, very big decision and ultimately, as I said before, you look at yourself and we would, I think, be mature enough to look after ourselves and pull the handbrake in that case.