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Three Days in March: Formula One and Coronavirus

fans at the Melbourne Formula One World Championship 2020

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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