Australian Grand Prix chairman Paul Little and the event’s chief executive Andrew Westacott both stressed the primacy of expert medical opinion as to whether the meeting would continue but Hamilton left no-one in any doubt about his views as he expressed his shock that crowds were allowed to congregate in Melbourne as the threat from the virus escalates.
“I am really very, very surprised that we’re here,” Hamilton told a packed media conference on Thursday afternoon.
“I think it’s great that we have races but for me it’s shocking that we’re all sitting in this room.
“So many fans [are] already [here] today. It seems like the rest of the world is reacting probably a little bit late [to the virus] yet Formula One continues to go on.
“It’s a concern for the people here. It’s quite a big circus that is coming. It’s definitely concerning for me.”
Little acknowledged Hamilton had delivered “very strong words” and said the GP corporation “take into account the views of all concerned.
“Ultimately everyone needs to make their own decisions whether they should be attending the event or not.”
Asked if Sunday’s race might go ahead behind closed doors with no fans, Little explained that such a move was not just a decision for the organisers.
“There are a number of parties who are involved in that decision before it comes to us,” he said.
“It’s complicated, it’s not as simple as us just working out what we want to do.
“We would not be putting this event on if we didn’t make as our number one priority the health and safety of our racing fans attending.”
Westacott stressed that the organisers were directed by senior health officials at both state and federal level.
“We take directives from the health authorities … from the Department of Health and Human Services. The government will make a decision and we will follow the guidelines.”
Sutton, Victoria’s senior health official, told radio 3AW that if the tests were positive “we need to consider what it means for their close contacts and if they have a number of close contacts across a number of crews, then those individuals need to be quarantined.
“If that effectively shuts down the race, then so be it. We’ll make that call.”
On Thursday (AEDT) the American NBA was shut down after one Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus.
The Bahrain Grand Prix is slated to go ahead without crowds on March 22. The Chinese Grand Prix, in mid-April, has already been cancelled and there are concerns whether the Vietnamese race, due early next month, will go ahead.
Hamilton was also asked whether the race should be cancelled if any of the pit crew members being tested for coronavirus returned positive results.
“I heard that results are not going to come back for five days or something … coincidental,” Hamilton said.
“Already this morning we have seen [US President Donald] Trump shut down the borders from Europe to the States, we see the NBA has suspended, yet F1 continues to go on.”
The GP, annually backed by $60 million worth of Victorian government funding, was allowed to go ahead after a federal government ruling last week which at the time allowed the Italian-based Ferrari and AlphaTauri Formula One squads into the country. Earlier this week tougher measures were introduced and all travel from Italy was banned.
However, the comments from Hamilton, the dominant figure in the sport, have put administrators under enormous pressure.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, himself a four-time world champion, was more measured and gave some credence to the suggestion that this year at least Formula One should “apply a handbrake and start its season in Europe.”
“One way or the other I think you expect and you hope that we take the right decision, or the sensible decision,” Vettel said.
“To be completely straight we are probably in a lucky situation. Obviously we’re exposed to people but largely we can control our own situation (with maintaining hygiene).
“Obviously in the car we don’t even have a passenger.
“What I mean is you try and control the situation for yourself first as much as you can.”
Michael Lynch is The Age’s chief soccer reporter and also reports on motor sport and horseracing
Scott Spits is a sports reporter for The Age