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article imageFormula One in turmoil as season-opening Australian Grand Prix cancelled

By Martin PARRY (AFP)     Mar 13, 2020 in Sports

Formula One's season was thrown into turmoil Friday with the Australian Grand Prix cancelled just hours before cars were due to hit the track amid fears that more races will be called off as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll.

The decision follows April's Chinese Grand Prix being postponed and with the second race of the year in Bahrain due to be held without spectators, leaving huge question marks over the rest of the calendar.

"We will in the coming days be looking at races that are more imminent like Bahrain and Vietnam," F1 chief Chase Carey said in Melbourne.

"And we will have further announcements and decisions on how we navigate the short-term elements of our schedule. We know there are issues there."

The future of the Australian race, the first of the season, was also in doubt Thursday when McLaren pulled out after one of its team members tested positive for the virus.

McLaren revealed Friday that 14 other staff were now in a mandatory two week quarantine after being in close contact with the man, casting doubts on whether it will be able to compete in Bahrain even if the race goes ahead.

The McLaren employee was among eight Formula One personnel who went into isolation after showing flu-like symptoms typical of the disease this week.

The other seven -- including four from the Haas team -- all returned negative results.

The fast-moving developments sparked a crisis meeting between the race organisers, the FIA, teams and Formula One promoters late Thursday to discuss whether Sunday's race should go ahead.

"Those discussions concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead," they said in a joint statement just hours before the first official practice session and with fans queueing to get in.

It added while fans would be disappointed, "the safety of all members of the Formula 1 family and the wider community, as well as the fairness of the competition take priority".

Teams quickly began packing up to leave the circuit as some fans, many travelling from overseas, fumed at the way they were treated.

"We had to find out from Twitter, not from the organisers and have been waiting here for hours in the line," one told the Herald Sun newspaper.

- 'A big thing for us' -

World champion Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes was one of the teams that requested the cancellation.

Hamilton 'surprised' Australian Grand Prix going ahead
Hamilton 'surprised' Australian Grand Prix going ahead
William WEST, AFP

Formula One website Autosport said seven teams supported ditching the race with three -- Red Bull, its sister squad AlphaTauri and Racing Point -- willing to continue.

"We empathise strongly with the worsening situation in Europe, most especially in Italy, and furthermore we do not feel it would be right to participate in an event where fellow competitors such as McLaren are unable to do so through circumstances beyond their control," Mercedes said.

European countries that are home to many of the F1 teams and journalists have had a high number of confirmed cases, notably Italy.

Hamilton -- gunning to match Michael Schumacher's record seven world crowns this season -- on Thursday said he was stunned the race was still scheduled as feared mount about the spread of the epidemic.

"I am really very, very surprised that we're here. I don't think it's great that we have races but it really is shocking that we're all sitting in this room," he said at an official pre-race press conference.

Haas driver Romain Grosjean was among the first to welcome the decision to call it off.

"No race here in Melbourne. Feels like a big thing for us as we prepared very hard for it BUT actually a very small thing compared to the challenge the world is facing right now," he tweeted.

"Stay safe everyone and try to fight #Covid_19 as much as you can."

Australia has reported more than 180 cases of coronavirus so far, including among fans who attended the women's T20 Cricket World Cup final and a Super Rugby match, both in Melbourne last week.

Earlier Friday, it was announced that Australia's one-day cricket series against New Zealand starting in Sydney on Friday would go ahead, but without fans.

Formula One teams had already put measures in place to limit interaction between drivers and fans, with autograph sessions replaced by question-and-answer interviews, and selfies banned.

Media events were also hit, with large open spaces separating drivers from the press.

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