MELBOURNE, Australia — 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.
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. The teams and organizers met overnight and "concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead," the FIA, F1 and Australian GP said in a joint statement.
F1 chairman Chase Carey said the right decision had been made, despite the delay in reaching it.
"We’ve been certainly discussing this issue before last week. It’s not like it came out of the blue," he told a news conference beside the F1 paddock that ended with rain lightly falling. "We made the decision to come here based on what we knew last week.
"A week ago, it looked, when teams started travelling here, we felt it was the right decision. Clearly the situation changed in the interim."
Fans will be refunded for their tickets. Negotiations are continuing with hundreds of suppliers for the race.
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 had already been postponed.
Six-time world champion Lewis 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 when one of its team members tested positive for the virus was the catalyst for the decision. That person and 14 other team members have been placed in quarantine in the team hotel for 14 days.
Hamilton’s Mercedes-AMG Petronas team said it sent a letter to the FIA and F1 requesting the cancellation and had commenced preparations to leave even before the decision was publicly announced.
"We share the disappointment of the sport’s fans that this race cannot go ahead as planned. However, the physical and mental health and well being of our team members and of the wider F1 community are our absolute priority," the team said in a statement. "In light of the force majeure events we are experiencing with regards to the Coronavirus pandemic, we no longer feel the safety of our employees can be guaranteed if we continue to take part in the event."
Hamilton was critical of the decision to travel to Australia, given the circumstances of other major sports and large-scale public gatherings being cancelled.
"I am really very, very surprised we’re here … it’s shocking we’re all sitting in this room," Hamilton said. "It seems that the rest of the world is already reacting a little bit late … yet Formula One continues."
There were long queues of people waiting to get into Albert Park early Friday but the gates remained closed, and news slowly spread that the state premier had said no spectators would be allowed in, even if the race went ahead..
Asked why he thought organizers were persisting with the race, Hamilton said "cash is king."
Carey refuted that on Friday, saying if that was the case, the Australian GP wouldn’t have been cancelled.
Members of the U.S.-backed Haas team had also been in isolation but they were cleared after tests, with Australian GP organizers saying state health authorities had confirmed only one positive case in eight F1-related tests conducted so far.
There have been more than 126,300 cases and 4,600 deaths globally since the virus outbreak started in China late last year.
Most people quickly recover from the virus after experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks.