Given the dangers inherent in seat-of-the-pants open wheel racing, formula one has survived and thrived through more grim days than most sports – with the possible exception of world football.
As an event with veteran status the Australian Grand Prix will also survive coronavirus, although Friday morning’s fiasco as fans were left waiting outside the Albert Park gates has certainly given the race’s critics plenty of ammunition.
The FIA and local organisers rightly deserved a whack for failing to end the uncertainty after it became clear that a majority of teams did not want to race.
Officials had clearly gambled and lost their high stakes bet that they could stay one step ahead of the pandemic, allowing teams – including from hard hit Italy – into Australia, and thus ensuring the roadshow could fly direct to round two behind closed doors in Bahrain.
For much of Friday afternoon Grand Prix officials were pilloried for not reading the tea leaves and calling the whole show off last week – the derision becoming louder still as F1’s chief executive, Chase Carey, and local event counterpart Andrew Westacott passed around the one microphone at their hastily prepared media conference.
But by late Friday formula one’s tortured route to a Melbourne cancellation looked positively enlightened given the NRL proceeded with its regular fixtures, the A-League and AFLW went ahead as normal and Racing NSW also planned to let the punters in for Rosehill’s Coolmore Classic.
Announcing a ban on ‘organised, non-essential gatherings’ on the advice of the chief medical officer, the Prime Minister bizarrely gave sporting bodies and the coronavirus the weekend off, saying the ban would come into place Monday.
“The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved Sharks, it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time,” Scott Morrison said.
It was a breathtaking act of hypocrisy, and after some reflection the PM’s office knew it – issuing a late night statement that Morrison would not be attending because of the potential for the outing to be “misrepresented”.
The chaotic nature of the rapid-fire announcements only served to highlight that the previously scandal plagued Cricket Australia had learned something after its recent travails, trumping everyone in the ‘best sport citizen’ stakes.
Perhaps recognising it had dodged a bullet by triumphantly hosting 80,000-plus at the MCG for the women’s World Cup final last Sunday, CA promptly banned spectators at the SCG for Friday’s first match of the ODI series against New Zealand – and looked good doing it.
It was a point not lost on F1’s Carey, who – facing a far greater logistical challenge – ruefully said the health advice had changed markedly in the past two days, and only after teams had started arriving in Melbourne.
By Friday evening – as the English Premier League having cancelled all games until April 3 after Arsenal’s Spanish manager Mikel Arteta was diagnosed with coronavirus – it was a short hop for the AFL to ban spectators for its round one one matches and beyond.
AFL chief Gillon McLachlan said the league would be telecast from empty stadiums and it would “provide clubs with protocols to assist with the health and safety of players, officials and supporters”.
The situation is fluid and the protocols will be updated regularly to reflect this.”
The AFL move will at least ensure footy fans will have something to watch while they are self-isolating at home, although – like formula one’s McLaren team – it will only take one positive diagnosis to likely stop the competition in its tracks.
All of which makes Australia’s response to the coronavirus in the weeks since the January outbreak in China questionable.
As a sport editor who worked through the Australian Open tennis, I couldn’t wait to leave the country the moment the last fuzzy ball was struck down the line at Melbourne Park.
Heading to Morocco via Vietnam for a bucket list few days cruising Halong Bay, the Vietnamese authorities tested everyone’s temperature before boarding, with the cruises ultimately shut down only one day later.
Hanoi hospitality staff wore masks, information sheets were handed out regularly and hand sanitisers were provided at the entrance to public locations and private lodgings. The city, which was due to host its debut formula one race on April 5, was on high alert to prevent a viral outbreak.
Arriving home in Melbourne last week, Peter Dutton’s beefed-up Border Force proffered no specific health questions or temperature checks, just a ticked box on travel through China. The now coronavirus-ridden Minister himself may have benefitted from the collected data.
Formula one now looks a bit stiff given lockouts and not bans appear to be the order of the day in handling the pandemic.
But given the government’s short steps on coronavirus to this point, is it really surprising the PM has now given local sport a leave pass on those measures until Monday?
Small mercies then he’s not directing all this from Hawaii.