Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has questioned the wisdom of staging the season-opening Formula One Grand Prix while other sports are canceling events because of the spreading coronavirus.
“I am really very surprised we’re here ... it’s shocking we’re all sitting in this room. So many fans already here today,” Hamilton said Thursday at the first official news conference for drivers ahead of Sunday's race.
Some countries were closing borders and imposing strict travel bans, Hamilton added, “yet F1 continues to go on.”
More than 300,000 fans regularly attend the Albert Park circuit over the first four days of the season. This year is expected to be no different, despite the fact some schools and universities in parts of the country have been closed after cases of coronavirus have been identified and a number of large-scale public gatherings have been scrapped.
Asked why he thought organizers were persisting with the race, Hamilton said “cash is king.”
Members of at least two F1 teams have been placed in voluntary isolation since arriving in Australia this week after showing symptoms of coronavirus, although none have yet been confirmed as cases.
A key point of concern for organizers has been the presence of Italian team Ferrari and the newly rebranded AlphaTauri team, formerly Toro Rosso, as well as tire supplier Pirelli.
Members of all three organizations had their temperatures taken upon arrival in Melbourne and F1 officials have said a race for championship points will not go ahead without them.
Italy is in lockdown as the country attempts to limit the spread of the virus, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday announcing travel restrictions that would have precluded them from taking part in the Australian Grand Prix.
“I heard that the results (are) not going to come back for five days, coincidentally," Hamilton said. “I don’t feel like I should shy away (from) .... my opinion. But the fact is, we are here. I just urge everyone to be as careful as you can be."
The British driver said it seemed odd “walking through and seeing everything going ahead as normal, like it’s a normal day.”
“I just hope all the fans stay safe and I really hope we get through this weekend and we don’t see any fatalities."
There have been more than 126,300 cases and 4.600 deaths since the virus outbreak started in China late last year.
The Chinese F1 Grand Prix has already been postponed, and the Bahrain GP is expected to go ahead at a circuit without fans. It has led to questions about whether the series should have just delayed the start of the season or started in Europe.
Most people quickly recover from the virus after experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
According to World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.