A strange day at Albert Park

I HAD this week planned a dive into one of the core issues facing Supercars at the moment, specifically the fact that a series trading on the star power of their drivers is in real danger of having very few actual stars racing in it within the next few years.

However, as I type it’s just before 10PM in Melbourne and I’ve returned to my hotel from what was a very strange day at the track with a compulsion to tap out some words about it.

For months this weekend was supposed to be something potentially very special.

The advent of the new F1 season is always exciting and Melbourne offers the first taste of the real playing field that sets the tone for the year ahead. The re-set playing field in Supercars had the potential to change things up and of course there was the debut proper of the new ‘big banger’ wings and slicks category for this part of the world, S5000.

Couple that with an outstanding event in the Australian Grand Prix in one of the world’s great cities and those of us attending were all set for a rather decent time away.

What we’ve walked into is a storm of commentary around the COVID-19 virus and whether the entire event should be going ahead or not.

It’s been quite confronting.

The self-isolation of several F1 team members reporting symptoms of the virus sent a shock-wave through a paddock already on edge. Constant reminders on the big screens told us to ensure we washed our hands, covered our mouth with our elbow when coughing and even that shaking hands was optional.

I was told that this messaging was to be repeated at least a dozen times throughout the day, if not more.

And then there was the media coverage, which like most media these days seemed to swing madly from ‘we’re all going to die’ to ‘lets just keep calm and carry on’. Finding a happy medium seems hard.

For the most part, a majority of the specialist F1 media seem to believe its madness to go racing and many are reporting as such.

On the flipside, the Grand Prix Corporation argue that the measures put in place to manage the potential outbreak are adequate and given there’s no formal ban on large events or gatherings in Victoria or Australia as yet, then the chances of the event being stopped – or it being run behind closed doors – was negligible.

None of this, of course, is helped by the daisy-chain that is the world of passing information in a motorsport paddock.

In my 15 years working on the sport I’ve never experienced a day with so many variations of ‘my mate who works in that team told me this..’ or, ‘There’ll be an announcement tonight…’, and so on.

The motorsport community may be spread around the world but when they’re all gathered it is impossibly tiny: Rumours and innuendo flow like wildfire, jumping from one person to another with the initial comment, a majority of the time, completely distorted when it’s passed through even a few people.

In the end there was the real potential of a complete meltdown of everything.

Aside from the fact that there was a chance no one would turn up, potential outcomes of the day included F1 personnel packing up and leaving before travel bans to Europe were put in place, driver strikes or according to some, a virus that would spread so quickly everyone in the precinct would have it by tea time.

What happened in the end was that the sun came out, some racing cars went on the racing track and many thousands of people turned up to enjoy a day out.

Was it as big as Thursday crowds in previous years? Almost certainly not. But there were people there: Mums and Dads, babies in strollers and kids running around enjoying the warm weather and the cool cars.

It was just like an ordinary day at the races which on its own is proof that while the truth is never as good as some may make it out to be, it’s probably never as bad either.

By the time you read this on Friday morning, things may have changed. There’s still a real chance that at the very least the Formula 1 component of the weekend may not go ahead; forcing Supercars and the supports to take up the slack. There’s also a chance that the organisers will bow to public pressure and shut the gates, making this a purely TV event. I don’t know what will happen and the biggest concern of all is that no one else does either. The target, as they say, is moving.

I honestly don’t know where I stand on all of this and my walk back from the track tonight was filled with thoughts to the positive – i.e. keep calm and carry on – or the opposite. People paid more money and with a bigger weight of responsibility than I will make the decisions and whatever happens, happens.

There’s no real summary to this missive nor is there much more of a point (though I would definitely suggest you stay away from Twitter, which is not the bastion of balanced discussion about such things) other than that even by the standards of motor sport – which on its own has offered up some truly baffling moments over its time – this was a very strange day indeed.

Normal service, at least in the form of this particular blog, resumes next week..

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