Why Formula 1 communication magnified Australian GP issues

If there’s one thing you can be sure of when it comes to Formula 1, it’s that it never does things the easy way.

At a time when the world is reacting to the Coronavirus outbreak, Formula 1 pressed on to Australia as if it never existed. There were a few close calls, but Ferrari and AlphaTauri managed to get out of Italy before the borders shut, and once everyone landed in Melbourne it was business as usual.

Although the F1 paddock got themselves unpacked as normal, the global status is anything but, and F1 chiefs were naive to think that they could avoid any major issue altogether.

Yes, the Chinese Grand Prix was postponed some weeks in advance, but that was based upon the advice of the Chinese government and was outside F1’s control.

As drivers talked to the media on Thursday, F1 was confident the weekend would go ahead without a hitch, despite the fact that Formula E had suspended all racing for two months, and that the WEC round at Sebring was also cancelled for next week, not to mention other major sporting events being suspended due to the virus.

And, after McLaren announced that they were withdrawing from the race as a team member tested positive for Coronavirus, many presumed that it would be swiftly followed by a press release from Formula 1 and the FIA that the race was to be called off.

Did that happen? No. Teams, drivers, media and fans all had to wait a further 12 hours before being told that the race was being postponed, and by this time the Friday morning events at Albert Park had already got underway.

F1 has said that it had to discuss the issue with a number of parties, but whilst this is true, it is also right to say it got itself backed into a corner because of contracts and legal issues. In simplistic terms, if they pro-actively cancelled the race then they would have to fit the bill. If the government forced them to pull out, the insurance would kick in.

In the end, Formula 1 took the most appropriate action, and the race was cancelled, but although the F1 bosses said that there was a plan in place, and that it took time because so many meetings were required, from the outside it looked far from it.

Once again, communication has let Formula 1 down. There was complete radio silence, other than to say that safety was paramount. Had they issued a press release to say that talks were ongoing and that further details would be released at ‘X’ time, people would have been more understanding.

Nobody has an issue with the race being cancelled in such circumstances, and it may well be that these meetings were always going to be needed in order for F1 to navigate themselves through the correct process, but timely and appropriate releases would made things much easier.

As it was, there ended up being plenty of speculation to the extent that two major media companies issued articles saying the complete opposite about the status of the race.

The FIA are also equally to blame, as they also had the opportunity to make sure there was some sort of communication. In the end, it never happened and teams headed back to the circuit on Friday not knowing if there was a race going ahead or not.

Thankfully, sense prevailed and the season opener was postponed.

As a result, a chain reaction has occurred, and earlier on Friday it was confirmed that the Bahrain and Vietnam Grand Prix were also postponed. 

For once a pro-active approach to the situation, but yet again, further confusion has been created based on the statement issued by F1 and the FIA.

The end of the press release statement issued on Friday said: “Formula 1 and the FIA expect to begin the Championship in Europe at the end of May but given the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Europe in recent days, this will be regularly reviewed.”

This paragraph creates plenty of questions as although the Bahrain and Vietnam races have been called off, nothing was mentioned about the Dutch Grand Prix which is due to take place on May 3.

So, is the Dutch Grand Prix going ahead? Has F1 decided to move it to the end of May? At this stage nobody knows.

If Formula 1 wanted to say it would be the end of May before the season would likely begin, they should have given a mention about the Dutch Grand Prix, even if to say it is currently being looked at, otherwise they shouldn’t have provided a date at all.

Yes, these are stressful times and the issues that Coronavirus has created across the globe is unprecedented, but good communication could have avoided this fiasco altogether.

Instead, F1 is now on a PR disaster recovery mission.