F1 cancels season-opening Australian GP amid virus concerns

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Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain rubs his nose during a press conference at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has questioned the wisdom of staging the season-opening Formula One Grand Prix while other sports are canceling events because of the spreading coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

MELBOURNE – As thousands of fans queued to get into the Australian Grand Prix for the first Formula One weekend of the season, the teams and drivers were packing up to leave.

Concern over the coronavirus left organizers with little choice Friday but to cancel the season-opening race, particularly after McLaren's withdrawal because a team member tested positive for the COVID-19 illless and following heavy criticism from six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.

The two practice sessions that usually showcase what the teams have been improving in the off-season were less than two hours from starting when the decision was publicly announced. Principals of nine F1 teams and organizers met overnight and “concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead," a joint statement by motorsport's governing body, local organizers and F1 said.

“It's been a very fluid situation. I think we've made the right decisions," F1 chairman Chase Carey said. “We're all disappointed not to have it, but I think we've made the decision we had to made."

“We've been certainly discussing this issue before last week. It's not like it came out of the blue," Carey told a news conference beside the F1 paddock that ended in light rain. “A week ago, it looked, when teams started traveling here, we felt it was the right decision (to stage the race). Clearly the situation changed in the interim."

Fans will be refunded for their tickets. Negotiations are continuing with hundreds of suppliers for the race. Australian organizers haven't ruled out staging the race on a later date.

Practice, qualifying and Sunday's race were all scrapped, casting doubt over the Bahrain Grand Prix which is scheduled to be held next week and the Vietnamese GP, scheduled for April 5. Authorities in Bahrain have already said no fans will be allowed into the circuit. Carey said a decision on whether or not to go ahead with the the race would be made in coming days. The Chinese GP has already been postponed.

Hamilton used the first official news conference with F1 drivers in Melbourne to say he was shocked that organizers planned to proceed with the Australian Grand Prix, which regularly attracts more than 300,000 people over four days. McLaren's decision to withdraw was ultimately the catalyst for the cancellation. That person and 14 other McLaren team members have been placed in quarantine in a Melbourne hotel for 14 days.