Sport Motorsport F1: Virus fears force Ricciardo out of the Melbourne spotlight
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F1: Virus fears force Ricciardo out of the Melbourne spotlight

Empty chairs at the Renault VIP suite where Daniel Ricciardo was meant to meet the media on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Tate
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Since Daniel Ricciardo’s first race at Albert Park in 2014 ended with a podium and a controversial disqualification, the affable Western Australian has suffered through the intense media spotlight at his home Grand Prix.

This year, the corona virus has finally forced a distancing from the baying mob.

In fact, in 2019 Ricciardo left Melbourne vowing to never again be put under so much outside pressure before the Australian event.

His race had been ruined in the first 100 metres by an excursion onto a grass ditch that smashed the front wing of his Renault in an ignominious first outing with the French team.

At a VIP room overlooking that exact spot on the circuit on Wednesday evening Ricciardo was due to front selected media, only to be withdrawn from appearing in the packed and stuffy suite as word filtered out that three members of other teams had been forced to self-isolate over corona virus concerns.

While Renault has clearly reduced Ricciardo’s media workload in the lead up to this season, no one could have imagined that an International pandemic would curtail much of the fan engagement and media promotions that make formula one such a unique global roadshow.

The Australian ace and his new teammate Esteban Ocon had earlier walked through the paddock to a scheduled photo call to unveil their new car’s livery, only to hightail it back prematurely to the relative safety of the team’s inner sanctum.

Ricciardo was his usual pleasant self as he waved to well wishers, although a large contingent around the drivers ensured that this year there’d be no shaking hands. Expect drivers to spend more time tipping their branded caps this year than mixing it with the public.

With Italy in lockdown, but Ferrari and AlphaTauri team members arriving in Australia just ahead of a federal government travel ban, Renault was clearly taking no chances with the health of its drivers.

It was left to team principal Cyril Abiteboul to spruik a new sponsorship deal and apologise for the drivers’ absence.

“As we were planning this event we were expecting a little more of a light atmosphere,” Abiteboul said.

“Obviously I am referring to the very particular circumstances that we [have] joining you here in Melbourne.

All drivers were supposed to be with us for that event, but due to the situation we have excused them from the occasion. I hope you understand why we are taking such measures.” 

Earlier a member of the McLaren team and two from Haas were put in self-isolation after being tested for the corona virus.

The second round of the season in Bahrain will be held without fans, but with all teams in Melbourne it had been hoped that there’d be less chance of that event being affected by health concerns.

A forlorn hope as it runs out given there’s been no stringent temperature testing for the corona virus or detailed questioning of arrivals at Australian airports in the past month.

On social media some of the usual media detractors of the Grand Prix questioned the timing of the government’s Italian travel ban, noting suspiciously that it came into affect only after Italian teams arrived for the race.

Although many of the same critics claimed the money-spinning nature of the race may have ensured a smooth passage for the Italians, those arguments seemed to counter to the usual claims that the race is a loss-making operation of little economic benefit to Victoria.

While the Kennett state government ensured the race would always be controversial by locating it in parkland – instead of, say, a brownfield street circuit at the then moribund docklands – there’s no doubt that that the Australian Grand Prix is an annual highlight for the thousands of fans of all ages who compete and attend karting, speedway and other community motorsport events around the country.

Indeed, the wide open spaces of Albert Park may actually be a benefit this year with spectators having plenty of room to avoid the sniffy – be they on track, or off.