Brawn: Rapid expansion of COVID-19 surprised everyone

Formula 1 bosses have discussed suspending the start of the new season until June after the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled after the sport’s traditional curtain-raiser at Albert Park was officially axed just 90 minutes before FP1 was due to begin on Friday

This follows on the heels of  McLaren’s withdrawal from the event after one of their mechanics tested positive for coronavirus, on Thursday. This triggered meetings to thrash out a plan.

Although next weekend’s behind-closed-doors race in Bahrain is yet to be formally called off, it is understood that the view of the sport’s travelling circus is to delay the campaign until the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, pencilled in for June 7, at the earliest.

As it stands, the season is due to end in Abu Dhabi on November 29, but the PA news agency now understands that the race could be pushed back until December to allow room for next month’s postponed Chinese Grand Prix and the inaugural race in Vietnam, currently pencilled in for April 5, to be squeezed back into a rejigged calendar.

The Dutch Grand Prix, the first in Holland for 36 years, is due to take place on May 3, but that might now be moved to August, with the sport’s customary summer break scrapped. Eighteen races may be staged in six months.

The historic Monaco Grand Prix, set for May 24, could become the sport’s biggest casualty, while there may also be no room for the races in Bahrain and Spain. There are no plans for the round here in Melbourne to be rescheduled for later in the year.

“We were very keen to have the race,” said Brawn. “It’s a very positive event. We wanted to kickstart the F1 season. It is a great race with great fans and a wonderful weekend. We have a big impact on the economy here and it has an impact on our economy as well.

“F1 has to function, we have to make it work so we looked at the whole situation and when we decided to go, we looked at the different dynamics.

“Probably what has surprised everyone is the rapid expansion of this problem. The escalation of new cases, certainly in countries like Italy, where it’s gone almost vertical. No one could have expected that.

“I have spoken to [Ferrari chief] Mattia Binotto many times in the last few weeks, his mood changed in the last five or seven days, from what he was seeing in Italy. So we were on this ship that sailed and we were optimistic we could get through it, that we could get Formula 1 started and just bring a bit of relief in difficult times.

“Once we had the positive case, once one team couldn’t race because of that, clearly we had a problem we needed to address.”

The new campaign was thrown into chaos in the early hours of Friday morning after the teams decided against staging the race in Australia.

It is understood that they voted 7-3 in favour of the race being cancelled, leading F1 and its governing body, the FIA, to call off the event.

Brawn explained the delay that had F1 in total turmoil on Thursday night and into the early hours of the morning in Melbourne, “There was consultation with the teams, the medical authorities, the FIA and the promoters here. I’ve been up all night. We had so many issues to work through. We had to get the teams together again and hold a meeting. It all takes time.

“It’s not a total autocracy as in we just can’t make a decision. We have so many factors to take into account. I think we did a pretty good job of reaching the right conclusion with so many stakeholders involved. We’re talking to the FIA, which is in Europe on a Europe timezone, and we had to speak to [FIA President] Jean Todt.

“[F1 CEO] Chase [Carey] unfortunately was in the air, flying between Vietnam and here. So it was a pretty stressful period. Considering we dealt with everything in 12 hours, for something that important, was good.”

“We had mapped out with the health authorities what would happen if we had one case, five cases, 10 cases but what you never know with those cases is what the association is with the people around. Having one case with 14 people having to go into isolation, that effectively knocked that team [McLaren] out of operation.

“If that one case had been someone with a different profile, different responsibility, it might not have impacted a team that much. There are certain things you can spend forever predicting and you’ll never know what is going to happen. In reality, we found the case, the person who was positive in the paddock. That is the credit to the authorities. They were identified, they were tested, the procedures worked.”

With the coronavirus pandemic shifting parameters every day, Brawn said of the forthcoming races,  “I don’t think anyone has experienced [a situation like] this in their lives. I’ve been through financial crisis, dramas and the scale of this at the moment is massive.

“We are taking stock of the situation now and what we have learned from this weekend. 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. I think the team is in the right place to realise that is necessary,” added Brawn.

Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team originally called for the race to go ahead during the opening round of voting. But the world champions changed their minds following a tense meeting involving the sport’s team principals and Brawn in a downtown Melbourne hotel.

Red Bull, their sister team AlphaTauri, and Racing Point had been happy to press on with practice on Friday.

An official announcement was then delayed until after 10am local time. There was confusion as thousands of fans gathered outside the Albert Park venue with Paul Little, chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, telling local breakfast television that the race would go ahead. The word then arrived that the grand prix had been scrapped.

Six-time F1 world champion Hamilton, who had already been deeply critical of the sport’s move to head to Melbourne, welcomed F1’s decision.