Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix 2020: An Exercise in Mismanagement and a Complete Failure of Disease Prevention

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This morning I woke up early, checked the official Formula 1, Australian Grand Prix and FIA websites. McLaren announced at approximately 11:00pm (AEDT) last night that a team member had tested positive for COVID-19 and they were withdrawing from the race. Based on the past announcements that if a team voluntarily withdrew from the race the event would still proceed and that events would likely still be held but may not be a championship race if the exclusion was involuntary, my father and I decided to proceed with our plan of going to the Grand Prix today.

We got to the gates at 8:45am (when they were due to open) to purchase our tickets. At around 9:15am an Australian Grand Prix representative walked along the queues informing everyone the gates were closed while the day’s schedule was adjusted.

Around 10:00am the FIA formally announced via a press release on their website that no Formula 1 activities would occur this weekend. No statement was made about any other track activities. I checked the Formula 1 website and the Australian Grand Prix website and there were no formal announcements. I had heard from others in the queue that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had announced at approximately 9:00am that the public would not be permitted to attend the event, and if it proceeds it will be for telecast only.

While waiting in the ticket sales queue I watched as event staff actively herded people queueing for entry closer together to reduce the apparent length of the queue. My father and I started talking to other people in the ticket sales queue, people who would otherwise have had no interaction with.

# My Concerns

For an event that was about to be cancelled due to concerns over a virus that has been labelled a global pandemic, the actions of staff and organisers significantly increased the likelihood of transmission of an infectious disease.

  • By shepherding queuers closer together, staff greatly increased the likelihood of transmission of COVID-19 should someone be infected.
  • By not providing up to date information organisers increased the likelihood of transmission by causing attendees to spend longer waiting in close proximity to each other.
  • By delaying decision making until after the time the gates were due to open, the organisers and government caused large numbers of people to congregate in close quarters, thus giving greater opportunity for the disease to be transmitted.

If the gates had been opened as scheduled, I believe the likelihood of transmission of COVID-19 would have been significantly reduced. Traditionally the Friday at the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix has relatively low attendance, spectators tend to space out around the track, and generally don’t interact with people they don’t already know from outside the event. By opening the gates, spectators would have created a physical distance between themselves and other attendees, rather than being in copies proximity to each other. Surely this would reduce the likelihood of transmission of the virus.

# Where Was the Contingency Plan?

The mismanagement exhibited in the handling of this situation is astounding. Since leaving the venue I have begun to seriously wonder about the ability of the FIA, Formula 1, the AGPC and the Victorian State Government to manage an event.

The first failure was the lack of a contingency plan should a positive diagnosis occur. With the prevalence of COVID-19 and the number of people that are involved in a Formula 1 event the chance of a positive diagnosis was high; surely any organisation with this potential for exposure would have a plan in place to react to a positive diagnosis. This was evidently not the case as it took at least 10 hours for a decision to be made about what would occur. If a well formed plan existed then it could have been enacted within minutes of McLaren announcing their withdrawal from the event.

A second failure was the apparent knee-jerk reaction to a single diagnosis of the virus. Again, given the prevalence of the virus and the number of people at the event, the likelihood of a positive diagnosis was extremely high. With the knowledge of the high probability, surely organisers and the Victorian Government could have made the call to cancel the event much earlier. The fact that the event was not cancelled in advance, and indeed the first day of the event was held on Thursday, shows those involved in organising the event and enforcing public health strategies deemed the risk to the community to be low. In this case, why was a single diagnosis (that was already an extremely likely probability) enough to cause such a massive change in policy? Either the organisers and the government failed to properly assess the risks, or they have demonstrated a complete failure to manage the situation while under pressure.

Another failure was Formula 1’s policies prior to the event. After publishing that races would continue in the event of a team voluntarily withdrawing, and that non-championship events would likely occur if teams were prohibited from entering a country, it was inevitable that many people would still attempt to attend the event even if one team withdrew. If a Formula 1 had published policies that stated an event would likely be cancelled should a team withdraw, then many people would not have attempted to attend today once they knew a team had withdrawn.