McLaren announced on Thursday that it would withdraw from the event after one of its team members tested positive for the coronavirus, which heightened existing controvery that the event was still going ahead despite concerns about the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
In a statement, McLaren said: “The team member was tested and self-isolated as soon as they started to show symptoms and will now be treated by local healthcare authorities.
“The team has prepared for this eventuality and has ongoing support in place for its employee, who will now enter a period of quarantine. The team is co-operating with the relevant local authorities to assist their investigations and analysis.
“The decision [to withdraw from the race] 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.”
Following McLaren’s announcement, Australian Grand Prix corporation boss Andrew Westacott said the event was in talks with F1 and Australian health officials about the “broader implications” of the diagnosis. It is understood local officials suggested the event could only run if spectators were not allowed entry, the idea of which race organisers had previously rejected.
In the lead-up to the event, organisers put a number of measures in place, including scrapping autograph sessions with the drivers.
The initial decision to go ahead with the race was criticised by reigning champion Lewis Hamilton. During a media session on Thursday he told reporters that he was “very, very surprised that we are here”. He added: “It’s great that we have races, but for me it’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this room. So many fans are here already and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting, probably a little bit late.”
When asked why he felt the race was continuing at that point, Hamilton added: “Cash is king, but honestly I don’t know.”
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, speaking before McLaren’s announcement, had suggested that the drivers could refuse to race if there were further concerns.
The Bahrain Grand Prix, the second race on the calendar, is due to be staged on 22 March without fans in attendance in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. However, with Bahrain introducing further travel restrictions and the positive test of a paddock employee the viability of that event is now in question.
The new Vietnam Grand Prix is due to be the third race of the season on 5 April, but it seems unlikely to go ahead due to limitations on large gatherings introduced by the government there, with F1 bosses reportedly flying to the country to engage in talks. The Chinese GP, due to follow that event in April, has already been postponed. Following that, the new Dutch Grand Prix is scheduled for 3 May, followed by the Spanish GP on 10 May.