During the Formula One Drivers’ Press Conference, which took place on Thursday’s Media Day at the 2020 Australian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton uttered the phrase ‘Cash is King’ to represent his bewilderment at the Grand Prix still being held at the time of the Global COVID-19 crisis. What followed later has been well reported. First, McLaren withdrew from the Australian Grand Prix following one of its staff members being confirmed as having COVID-19. This triggered a sequence of knock-on effects which concluded with the cancellation of the 2020 Australian Grand Prix – just 2 hours before Free Practice 1. However, all of this arose from one identified case of COVID-19 in the paddock, yet news has broken now, two months since the events of Australia, that the FIA is confident that it would be able to handle up to 10 confirmed cases in the paddock – without needing to cancel races.
This headline shocked a large portion of the F1 Community when Sky Sports F1 was the first to broadcast the news in discussion with the president of the FIA's medical commission, Gerard Saillant. The viewing public was made aware that the FIA had held a meeting to prepare protocols for a successful running of a Formula 1 Grand Prix and on that list of protocols was the plan for paddock personnel to be tested for COVID-19 every other day during the event.
There is a strong desire to literally get Formula 1 back on track as soon as possible seeing how the F1 calendar has been hit hard by race cancellations. The end of May was originally planned for the Monaco Grand Prix but the organisers of this historically extravagant event were quick to announce this would not happen and since then many other Grand Prix organisational committees have taken a similar stance. As such, there may be a temptation to over promise on what can be delivered and that is the label many skeptical fans have assigned to Saillant’s recent remarks which were:
"I think the situation is quite different between Melbourne and now, because the knowledge of the virus is quite different…It's possible to prevent and anticipate quite a lot things. If we have one positive case, or maybe 10 positive cases, it's possible to manage perfectly with a special track, a special pathway for the positive cases. Medically speaking, it's not a problem."
A lot has been written of the biosphere which F1 plans to create for the F1 Grand Prix events, but yesterday it was reported that it looks very unlikely F1 will be exempt from a 14 day quarantine in the UK – despite the biosphere proposal. As reported yesterday, it is assumed that the British Government would be wary of setting an exemption precedent for certain sports because then there would be wider discussion of how many individuals could claim they also needed to get around the restrictions. Saillant also knows that the precedent set from running races and then having COVID-19 cases emerge could have a more damaging impact on the sport:
"In terms of sporting and media consequence, it's quite different. We have to try and anticipate that, to know where is the right line beyond which it's impossible to continue. But I think it's not a problem for us now."
Formula 1 chief photographer Mark Sutton famously captured the reaction of the waiting crowd queuing at the turnstiles on the morning of Free Practice 1 in Australia back in March. The gestures and comments directed towards the FIA, after the news of the cancelation, were clear to see and FIA president Jean Todt is aware of the importance of such scenes not being repeated:
"We want to make sure that arriving to the first event on the 2020 calendar, we don't face another unpredictable situation….Our experts are working on that."
At the moment, what is known is that there is constant discussion in the hope of relaunching the 2020 F1 Season with back-to-back races in Austria (July 5th & July 12th) but this is still nowhere near settled. Zac Brown (Chief Executive of McLaren Racing) and Guenther Steiner (Haas F1 Team Principal) have both said, when interviewed as part of Sky Sports F1’s Vodcast series, that their team would need 4 to 5 weeks to be up and running and with that in mind – the proposed date of July 5th appears very ambitious.
Despite all this, and the fluid situation F1 finds itself in, Liberty Media is still planning to hold between 15 and 18 races this year which would see the season conclude in mid-December. With all these protocols, planning and preparation, as well as claims that 10 positive COVID-19 cases would be able to be managed, what the oganisers cannot lose sight of is the importance of keeping people safe. If such a moment comes, then the statement of Lewis Hamilton would become ever more apparent and the world would then assume that in F1 – maybe cash is king after all.