As Ferrari became the first team to launch their 2020 car on Tuesday night, in an opulent opera house near their Maranello base, the season itself was falling deeper into turmoil, with two of the first four races at serious risk of cancellation due to the spread of coronavirus.
The scrapping of April’s Chinese Grand Prix could be confirmed on Wednesday, while the inaugural race in Vietnam, scheduled two weeks earlier, also finds its place on the calendar in danger.
Given the scale of the epidemic in China, with more than 42,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and over 1,000 deaths, it is all but impossible to see how the country can host a global sports event in just nine weeks’ time.
The race in Shanghai is due to take place on April 19, and British Airways have cancelled all flights to the city until April 1 at the earliest.
Formula E has been quicker to act, postponing next month’s race in the tropical city of Sanya, while the World Indoors Athletics Championships in Nanjing has also had to be rescheduled for 2021.
The delay on F1’s part is largely for financial reasons: the Chinese race is one of the sport’s most reliable money-spinners, serving a vast market, and stripping it of its April slot offers no easy alternatives. Those staging September’s Russian Grand Prix are rejecting any idea of swapping with China, while the teams have scotched the suggestion of sandwiching Shanghai between Sao Paulo and Abu Dhabi at the end of a season of already record length.
Even the Shanghai Sports General Association has told its member bodies to act responsibly until the threat from the virus has receded, insisting that all sports “strictly abide by the requirement to stop organising events during the epidemic”.
Calling off the Chinese Grand Prix would create a logistical nightmare for F1, with all teams having sea-freight shipments en route to the region. As such, the sport has delayed making judgment.
Only this week, Ross Brawn, F1’s technical chief, said he was willing to wait a few weeks before reaching an official verdict, while Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff headed straight from a sponsorship event in London to undergo his mandatory biometric checks at the Chinese Embassy. But such is the severity of the health emergency, there is no longer the luxury of time. It is possible that cancellation of China’s race, the fourth of 22 grands prix in 2020, will be announced today. A Formula One spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The third race, the first ever in Vietnam at a purpose-built street circuit in Hanoi, also looks vulnerable. Officials in the city have said they are actively monitoring the coronavirus situation as it escalates across south-east Asia, with 15 cases reported in Vietnam so far. Hanoi, the capital, lies just 200 miles from the Chinese border.
Even as the schedule was plunged into uncertainty, the extravagance of F1’s launch week continued unabated, as Ferrari unveiled their 2020 machine, the SF1000, in a lavish ceremony in Reggio Emilia. “It may look similar to last year’s, but it’s completely different,” said team principal Mattia Binotto.
“We have been as extreme with the concept as we could.” Ferrari are seeking their first F1 title since 2008, which would break a six-year Mercedes stranglehold.