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Three Days in March: Formula One and Coronavirus

This week’s ULU Nation blog comes from Anthony Peacock. Anthony runs Mediatica, a content creation agency specialising in the automotive sector. He also takes care of PR for ULU, and this week, he’s been writing about Formula One and Coronavirus. Read on for Anthony’s account of his experience in Melbourne for the first round of the Formula One World Championship amid recent Coronavirus fears.

 

Anthony Peacock’s Three Days in March

There are lots of things that cause anxiety, but travel and illness are two well-known examples. And for three days in March, these two factors came together in a perfect storm that touched the lives of several friends and colleagues.

I was one of the 2000 people or so who made the long trip to Australia for work purposes at the first round of the Formula One World Championship in Melbourne. What happened subsequently has been well-reported, but it might be quite interesting for people to know what it was actually like from the inside.

The Australian Grand Prix got underway in a climate of uncertainty, owing to the far-reaching effects of the Coronavirus, which causes the Covid-19 disease. A while earlier, the Chinese Grand Prix had been cancelled. And just before we all left for Australia, we’d heard that the Bahrain Grand Prix – scheduled for just a week after the race in Melbourne – would be run behind closed doors (a first in Grand Prix history).

It was evident from the moment I got to Heathrow Airport that it would be a very different weekend in Australia. The British Airways flight to Hong Kong (then Qantas to Melbourne) was largely deserted. And masked figures roamed the airport like something out of a zombie apocalypse film. Another colleague, whose first flight to Australia was on Emirates from Milan to Dubai (back when Milan airport was still open), was the only passenger on a Boeing 777.

We got to the paddock, a tight-knit community, and it was largely empty. But it was the social interaction that was fascinating. People who had been to Italy or China (or were Italian or Chinese) were largely treated as lepers. People awkwardly bumped elbows rather than shaking hands. It’s a multicultural and warm environment in F1. But there was none of the kissing and hugging that’s normal after people haven’t seen each other for a long time. If you offered your hand to shake – as I did – it was almost judged to be irresponsible.

As always, the natural defence was humour – which did lighten the atmosphere. There were jokes about marking areas as “unclean,” and feeding certain people pancakes. – As that’s the only food you can slide under the door. It’s really important to stress one thing here: none of these jokes were made out of any form of malice. Instead, it was a natural reaction to nervousness and a very human desire to make light of a bad situation, shrouded by uncertainty. It definitely helped, and the one positive aspect was the genuine feeling of comradeship.

But underlying the humour was the worrying fact that some colleagues and friends had been taken from the paddock already on Wednesday to be tested for Coronavirus. On Thursday, it was all that anyone was talking about, and then on Thursday night it all came to a head. One of those people, from the McLaren team, had tested positive. The team then decided to withdraw from the grand prix. And a meeting of team principals on Thursday night resolved to abandon the grand prix.

What happened next was almost farcical. A political wrangle about who would take responsibility for the decision meant that there was no official communication until Friday morning. For literally hours beforehand, personnel had been wandering the paddock, unclear as to what to do. As one team principal put it: “The latest is that…there is no latest.”

Some people had stayed in their hotels, worried for their own safety, as various airports in Italy closed. One colleague had his flight altered four times, having spent an estimated three hours on the phone to his airline to try and resolve the situation.

McLaren wasn’t there at all, with 14 members of the team potentially infected and so quarantined to their rooms in Australia for the next two weeks. These were people who set off thinking that they would be back in a few days. You sign up for travelling the world, but you don’t sign up for this.

A bit later came the news that a load more races were cancelled as well. The season might well not start until the middle of the year. But nobody told the fans who were queuing up outside the circuit gates on Friday morning…

I spoke to a freelance photographer. He relies on these races happening for his income. He also thought he had been in contact with a Coronavirus carrier. This photographer told me that potentially he wasn’t going to earn anything until the middle of the year, despite having shelled out for flights to Australia, Bahrain, and Vietnam, among other places. He was worried that he’d be quarantined for two weeks, like the McLaren guys, according to local regulations. Furthermore, he said that if so, he didn’t have the money to pay a hotel bill for that long. And above all he missed his family. He wanted to go home.

The moral of the story? People are tremendously good at compartmentalising and hiding stress, even though you would never guess that they were so unhappy from the outside.

There were lots of other people who told a similar story: worried about potentially being trapped on the other side of the world, unable to see friends or family, not even knowing when they got to go home, worried about becoming ill, infecting loved ones, and not being able to work.

The reality is that so many people working in what appear from the outside to be dream jobs felt let down and anxious, many wondering what they were doing travelling the world in the first place – given the current climate – but equally feeling that they had little choice. They were all stressed and in need of  help. And that’s nothing to do with Formula One. It applies to any international workers or travellers at the moment, in Europe and beyond.

It even applies to people who are quarantined at home. People who are watching news stories about supermarket shelves emptying, and the prospect of the pandemic getting worse: perhaps about it seriously harming their elderly relatives.

For many, the world has never seemed a more concerning place. And that’s why, in times like these, we need to focus on positivity more than ever. The Australian Grand Prix was a weird weekend – but it was only a small reflection of everything else that’s going on at the moment.

Anthony Peacock.

 

For more content by Anthony, read his recent blog about travel, Anthony Peacock: Sleepless in Seattle. Or Was it Toronto?

For more content about Formula One and Coronavirus, read a recent blog from our founder, Paul Hembery: Paul Hembery’s 2020 Formula One Review – Not!

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Hembery’s 2020 Formula One Review – Not!

With the recent spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, the world has been thrown into uncertainty. And with worldwide governments moving to a ‘delay phase,’ many large events have been cancelled. Paul Hembery, (Pablo) ULU founder and former executive director of Pirelli is a household name within the motorsport world. In this article, Paul Hembery gives his thoughts about how the Formula One industry should be responding to this crisis.

 

A note from Paul Hembery…

I had originally written an article before the Formula One season started. But of course the world is currently finding itself in increasingly extreme conditions due to COVID-19 coronavirus. This means anything that was planned or indicated before the cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix is really now superfluous.

It is also clear that with the cancellation of subsequent races in Bahrain and China and almost certainly Vietnam, Formula One is finding itself in a very new scenario.

Due to my career history, I’ve received a lot of recent questions about my take on this. Especially about whether or not I agree with the cancellations. Not just in the motorsport industry, but the sporting world in general.

It is always difficult for people to make tough decisions when it comes to event cancellations. Of course, with any cancellation comes significant commercial and financial impacts. However, the reality is that sport does not supersede other more important issues in the world or in life. In these situations, the health and safety of all is paramount – from the fans to the drivers, and the teams. In fact, this applies to all of the people involved in creating the show that his Formula One. So, it is now time to return home and rethink the scenario.

While hindsight is a wonderful thing, it was rather curious that Formula One had even ventured to Australia. Especially as Australia is well-known for its very extreme control of incoming viruses and diseases. Already, two weeks ago there were indications that the virus was gaining a significant hold in many countries. Not least Italy, where there are two Formula One teams and one of the major suppliers to the sport. In this instance, the decision to travel seemed not brave, but rather short-sighted.

Many will no doubt be writing about the process of the cancellations and what could’ve been done better. However, the main issue now facing Formula One is to find a clear and transparent direction for the remainder of the season. The clear indications coming from Europe and the USA is that the virus will only gain in intensity. Many reports show that the coronavirus will not reach its peak for another 10 to 12 weeks. This puts the peak at some time around the end of June.  Based on this information, the most sensible course of action for Formula One, following other sports, would be to cancel the season up until the midyear, the midseason break.

This is an extreme action of course! However, indecision will only increase uncertainty and risk. Formula One teams are made up of unusually strong international team members. And these members are used to travelling and mingling with many cultures and people. This makes for a pretty high-risk group. So, as with the rest of the population, at this time it is far more important that they have the ability to be around their family and focus on their health. There will undoubtedly be an increase in the need for self-isolation to reduce the potential spread further of the disease. And Formula One teams should be no exception to this.

That decision in itself is an easy decision, because it is based on good medical guidance. The difficulty for Formula One, and indeed the rest of the world, is the financial consequences of the coronavirus. The business model of Formula One relies on television income, hosting fees, and sponsorship. The lack of events and the lack of something to sell to the broadcasters means there will be a substantial drop in income. There will also be a substantial impact on the finances of teams, as well as to Liberty the rights holder. There may well be specialist types of insurance cover that will lessen the blow. But of course, something like a virus is often deemed a natural disaster or ‘force majeure.’ Something which is often beyond the scope of a number of insurance policies. 

The costs of running a Formula One team are immense. Some of those costs are variable costs related to the number of races and the changes during the development of the cars.  However, there is also an ongoing fixed-cost spend to support the structures of salaried employees. These are the issues that are facing every business across the world today. The impact of stopping or reducing business is going to have significant economic impact on the running of the economy. And this includes Formula One teams and employees. After the welfare of the Formula One community is settled within the limitations every person is living with, the thoughts will turn to financial survival. 

I sincerely hope that the leaders of Formula One now make a very clear decision as to what is happening for the season. It is essential in situations of turbulence to provide the strongest guidance and leadership. It is time to dispel panic and provide clarity. Only then can the Formula One community start to address together the financial implications of such an unprecedented situation. It is going to require an exceptional effort from everyone. 

So, rather than give what was meant to be my impression or view of how the Formula One season will evolve in 2020, which rather feels superfluous at this moment in time, I just want to wish all of the fans and members of the Formula One community a safe return home to their friends and family. 

In the grand scheme of things, driving around in circles is really not that important right now. 

Pablo

 

For more content from Paul Hembery, read his article about living and working in an age of anxiety.

For more sports-related content from our community, ULU Nation, read our blog about avid cyclist, Tom Corbet.