Melbourne: World champion Lewis Hamilton Thursday said he was “very surprised” that the Australian Grand Prix was going ahead during a coronavirus pandemic, as more Formula One staff were isolated and teams limited contact with fans.
The season-opening race in Melbourne is set to proceed as planned this weekend despite mounting fears about the spread of the disease.
“I am really very, very surprised that we’re here. I don’t think it’s great that we have races but it really is shocking that we’re all sitting in this room,” Hamilton said at an official pre-race press conference packed with media.
“It seems that the rest of the world is already reacting a little bit late, but you have seen this morning with (President Donald) Trump shutting down the border to Europe to the States, the NBA suspended, yet Formula One continues to go on.
“It’s a concern I think for the people here. It’s quite a big circus that’s come here, it’s definitely concerning for me.”
The Mercedes star, who is gunning to match Michael Schumacher’s record seven world crowns this season, sat alongside Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo in the media session, but a large open space separated them from the press.
Asked why he felt the race was still on, Hamilton replied: “Cash is king.”
Four-time world champion Vettel said it was difficult to judge what to do as the virus continues its spread.
“Obviously we have to trust the FIA (International Automobile Federation) to take precautions as much as they can, but I think the answer that nobody can give you at the moment is how much you can control what is going on,” he said.
“As a matter of fact, we are here so you just try to take care as much as you can.”
Five Formula One team members - four from Haas and one from McLaren - have been confirmed as in isolation pending the outcome of tests after showing flu-like symptoms typical of the virus.
Despite concerns, fans flocked to Albert Park on Thursday for a Supercars qualifying session.
“I’m not worried, I’m washing my hands and that’s the best thing to do,” said spectator Robert Clarke as he used a hand-sanitiser station.
In an attempt to limit interaction between drivers and fans, autograph sessions have been replaced by question and answer interviews, with selfies banned.
Media events have also been hit with Renault’s Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon “excused” from a press conference Wednesday, and an exclusion zone was enforced around Max Verstappen and Alex Albon at a Red Bull function.
Ocon was spotted wearing a mask in the paddock on Thursday, while teams scrapped all-in TV interviews, where media are tightly packed around the drivers, for the duration of the weekend.
The coronavirus has already hurt the sport with April’s Chinese Grand Prix postponed, while the second race of the year in Bahrain will be held without spectators.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen said drivers were trying “to make the best” of the Australian Grand Prix during the coronavirus outbreak, as teams limit contact with fans and the media to protect their health.
Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) chief Andrew Westacott said in a statement he was “monitoring the situation in conjunction with Formula 1 and the FIA (International Automobile Federation)”.
The first F1 practice sessions start on Friday.