MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — McLaren withdrew from the Australian Grand Prix on the eve of the first official practice sessions after a team member tested positive for the coronavirus, throwing the Formula One season-opener into doubt hours after six-time champion Lewis Hamilton questioned the wisdom of racing this weekend.
“I am really very, very surprised we’re here … it’s shocking we’re all sitting in this room,” Hamilton said at the first official news conference Thursday ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix. “It seems that the rest of the world is already reacting a little bit late … yet Formula One continues.”
Hamilton was speaking in the wake of the NBA suspending its season in the United States, and President Donald Trump announcing travel bans for people from Europe.
More than 300,000 fans regularly attend the Australian GP at the Albert Park circuit over the first four days of the season. This year was expected to be no different, despite the cancellation of some other large-scale public gatherings.
Asked why he thought organizers were persisting with the race, Hamilton said “cash is king.”
McLaren Racing issued a statement late Thursday saying the team member was tested after a period of self-imposed isolation, and was now going into quarantine.
In a statement from chief executive Zak Brown and team principal Andreas Seidl, McLaren said: “The decision has been taken based on a duty of care not only to McLaren F1 employees and partners, but also to the team’s competitors, Formula 1 fans and wider F1 stakeholders.”
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.
“Seven individuals have returned a negative result confirming that they do not have the COVID-19 virus,” organizers said in a statement, adding that they were in discussions with F1, FIA and health officials “in relation to the broader implications of this test result.”
A key point of concern for organizers has been the presence of Italian team Ferrari and the newly rebranded AlphaTauri team, as well as tire supplier Pirelli.
Members of all three organizations had their temperatures taken upon arrival in Melbourne and F1 officials have said a race for championship points would not go ahead without them.
In a statement, FIA acknowledged the McLaren decision and said it was “”coordinating with all the relevant authorities on the next steps. Our priority is the safety of the fans, the teams and all personnel at the race.”
All F1 drivers are taking precautions to try to avoid the spread of the virus. They’re not shaking hands with fans, or taking selfies as they usually do in Australia. They’re also paying extra attention to hygiene.
Hamilton was comfortable enough to sit in close proximity to fellow racers Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Nicholas Latifi on a couch at a news conference, five meters (15 feet) in front of the media, as he discussed his concerns.
Ricciardo, who is Australian and drives for Renault, said he had to trust FIA to stage the race in safe circumstances.
Vettel, a three-time champion in Melbourne who drives for Ferrari, agreed — at least now that the F1 show is already in town.
Two practice sessions are scheduled for Friday, with qualifying on Saturday.
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.
Italy is in lockdown as the country attempts to limit the spread of the virus. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced travel restrictions on Wednesday that would have precluded members of teams based in Italy from taking part in the Australian GP, if they weren’t already here.
The Chinese Grand Prix has already been postponed, and the Bahrain GP is expected to go ahead at a circuit without fans.
IndyCar on Thursday was still moving forward with its season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Florida. The three-day event draws more than 130,000 people and organizers said they would have more hand-washing and sanitizing stations throughout the downtown city course.
IndyCar, however, canceled it’s scheduled Friday driver autograph session.
The F1 weekend in Melbourne can attract daily crowds in excess of 100,000.
Hamilton said he usually loves starting the season in Australia, where he he has won twice and placed second to Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas last year, but added that he couldn’t “shy away” from his opinion about the safety risks for fans. He was worried particularly for older people attending the race — and said seeing a famous former world champion crystallized his concerns.
“I saw Jackie Stewart this morning looking fit and healthy in the lift, and as I walked into the paddock some elderly people, so I think it’s concern for the people here,” Hamilton said. “It’s quite a big circus that’s come here, it’s definitely concerning for me.
“But the fact is, we are here. I just urge everyone to be as careful as you can be,” he said. “I just hope all the fans stay safe and I really hope we get through this weekend and we don’t see any fatalities.”
Health officials in Australia’s Victoria state are prepared to act if there’s positive cases of coronavirus in the teams.
“(If tests) turn up positive, we need to consider what it means for their close contacts and if they have a number of close contacts across a number of crews, then those individuals need to be quarantined,” Victoria chief health officer Brett Sutton told Melbourne radio station 3AW. “If that effectively shuts down the race, then so be it. We’ll make that call.”