Coronavirus Wreaks Havoc on F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, IMSA, WEC, Formula E, NHRA Schedules (Updated)
New travel restrictions and the official declaration of coronavirus as a pandemic forced major changes to racing events.
I am sure we're all tired of hearing about the COVID-19 coronavirus by now, but for those of us who planned to attend a major racing event in the near future, the past week has been full of nerve-wracking uncertainty. How likely are you to be exposed to the virus? Will you be able to keep your hands clean and maintain ample distance from other people? Will you need to make new plans or rebook travel? (Or watch something else on TV?)
Two major developments had significant consequences yesterday: a 30-day ban on most European nationals (except Brits) traveling to the United States and the World Health Organization's official declaration of the coronavirus as a global pandemic. Over 100 countries on six continents have reported cases of COVID-19, reports the New York Times, and there is still no vaccine for it.
Two of the series affected the most by the U.S. travel ban were set to share the March 18-21 SuperSebring race weekend in Florida. The two top-level endurance series involved, the World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, include drivers from all over the world. WEC announced the cancellation of its 1000 Miles of Sebring today primarily because of the United States' travel ban.
"As you know we had been monitoring the situation closely but, as soon as President Trump made the announcement about the ban on flights from mainland Europe [...] we knew that we had little choice but to cancel immediately," WEC CEO Gérard Neveu explained in a series Q&A about the cancellation. "So many members of our paddock come from within [Europe's] Schengen zone that it would be impossible to hold the race without them."
After the WEC's cancellation, the other half of SuperSebring announced that it was also abandoning the March weekend. The International Motorsports Association will move its 12 Hours of Sebring to a November 11-14 weekend "due to the recent United States ban on travel from Europe, which will prevent a number of drivers, teams and key personnel from participation." As a result, the 12 Hours of Sebring will become the season-ending race for the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.
Tickets and parking already purchased for the 2020 SuperSebring weekend will be honored for the rescheduled November date. The World Endurance Championship has not announced that they will join IMSA in November, but did not immediately rule it out. However, a WEC series spokesperson told The Drive that the new date falling within their next season makes a move to November harder to do on their end.
SuperSebring was by no means the only event in Florida affected by the threat of COVID-19. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that no spectators will be allowed at this weekend's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, reports the Tampa Bay Times. The March 13-15 event features IndyCar and the SRO GT World Challenge America. [Update 3/13: IndyCar has now canceled all of their upcoming events until May.]
IndyCar confirmed this afternoon that the race would go on with only essential personnel and a small number of credentialed media allowed at the track. Like SuperSebring, a sizeable number of participants at the St. Petersburg event come from European countries affected by the travel ban, but this show will go on anyway with a condensed schedule.
Two new cases of COVID-19 in Florida were from people who attended larger gatherings, where close contact with other people increases the risk of spreading the virus, reports the Tampa Bay Times. One infected with the coronavirus attended a Tampa conference close to St. Petersburg. The other attended Daytona Bike Week held in Daytona Beach, where IMSA and NASCAR are based. Daytona Bike Week is a busy outdoor event not unlike the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. These cases, as well as coronavirus' new status as a global pandemic, were cited by Mayor Kriseman as reasons to bar spectators from the St. Petersburg IndyCar weekend.
IndyCar's upcoming April 24 date at Austin's Circuit of the Americas remains under review by the City of Austin, which recently mandated that all events before May 1 with over 2,500 attendees submit a plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases, Community Impact reports. If the city does not approve IndyCar's plan, the event could be delayed or canceled.
NASCAR also changed its plans for two upcoming races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, scheduled for March 15 and March 22 respectively. [Update 3/13: These races have now been postponed.] Both races will be held without spectators in attendance. Before the spectator ban, NASCAR released a series of updated procedures for this season which moved more events into open-air locations, restricted certain areas to necessary personnel only and advised drivers to pre-sign items as much as possible during autograph sessions, per Racer.
Yet another Florida event had to be modified in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHRA Gatornationals planned for this weekend at Gainesville Raceway will postpone most of its classes to a later, to be announced date. The lone exception is the Sportsman class, which will continue competing through the weekend without spectators.
An NHRA statement confirmed that they were following the advice of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who urged the postponement or cancellation of large events for the next 30 days in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Tickets purchased at this weekend's event will be honored at the rescheduled event, or fans can save their ticket to use as a credit for the 2021 Gatornationals.
Outside of the United States, the Formula One Australian Grand Prix remains a point of contention. Unofficial reports claim that the race has already been called off, but the FIA or F1 has yet to issue an official statement. [Update 7:17 p.m.: The Australian Grand Prix has officially been canceled.]
McLaren withdrew from the race today after a team member tested positive for coronavirus, and Haas sent three mechanics and one engineer to be tested for the virus after they displayed cold-like symptoms, although reports out of the paddock claim that those latter four tests have returned negative.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton told Autosport that it was "shocking" that the drivers were even there given the other reactions to the pandemic across the world:
So many fans here already today and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting, probably a little bit late, but already this morning we've seen Trump shutting down the borders from Europe to the States.
We are seeing the NBA being suspended and F1 continues to go on.
I saw Jackie Stewart this morning, looking fit and healthy and well, and some people as I walked into the paddock, some elderly individuals.
So it's a concern for the people here. It's definitely concerning for me.
As for why Hamilton thought they were there, he told Autosport, "Cash is king, but honestly I don't know. I can't add much." You can watch Hamilton's full answer here, where he makes it clear that he's frustrated at Formula One's seemingly lackadaisical response.
Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Räikkönen also expressed his doubts to Autosport, saying "I don't know if it's the right thing that we are here. Probably not."
Likewise, Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel told Motorsport.com that F1's 20 drivers would "pull the handbrake" on the race if conditions worsened and staff fell ill, but it's worth noting that his statement was made before McLaren's team member was confirmed to have COVID-19.
"I would qualify [stopping the race] is a very, very big decision and ultimately, as I said before, you look at yourself," Vettel told Motorsport.com. "And we would, I think, be mature enough to look after ourselves and pull the handbrake in that case."
Meanwhile, autograph sessions and other events that put drivers in close contact with the public have already been canceled, however, Motorsport.com understands that the Grand Prix Drivers Association which represents those 20 drivers wants more assurance from F1 that they are taking the right steps to minimize the chances of contracting the virus.
UPDATE [7:17 p.m.]: Add California's Grand Prix of Long Beach to the list of cancellations. The city of Long Beach canceled all events with an estimated attendance of over 250 people through the end of April, reports the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Their announcement followed a statement by California Governor Gavin Newsom to cancel or postpone gatherings of at least 250 people through the end of March.
The Grand Prix of Long Beach, which features IndyCar, IMSA, Stadium Super Trucks, historics and pro drifting, was set to run on April 17-19, and draws crowds of around 180,000 annually. Grand Prix of Long Beach organizers are working with the City of Long Beach and participating series to reschedule the event, and will offer information on ticket credits or refunds when they have a more definitive answer.
UPDATE [7:40 p.m.]: The World Rally Championship's Rally Argentina will also be postponed following the Argentine government's new measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rally was originally set to run on April 23-26. A new event date has not been announced yet as the WRC continues to monitor the pandemic.
No further changes have been announced for Rally Mexico this weekend. Shakedown for the rally went as planned today. The WRC says that they are closely monitoring teams that come from the most affected regions of the world, and are working with government and health authorities on the best course of action.
UPDATE [3/13, 10:11 a.m.]: Formula E and the FIA made a joint decision to temporarily suspend the FE season for a two-month period due to the coronavirus pandemic. Formula E primarily runs in the middle of cities, many of which are taking strict measures to ban large events to hinder the spread of COVID-19.
Races in Paris, Seoul and Jakarta have been canceled as a result. Formula E is using a flag-inspired system on its calendar to mark which dates have been canceled and which are under threat. Currently, March and April are marked red for all races being canceled, May is in yellow to signify that the series is keeping the possibility of those races open and June and July are green as they will go ahead as planned if conditions improve.
Another series postponing its races until at least May is Formula One, which announced the postponement of the Bahrain and Vietnam grands prix, which were originally set for March 20-22 and April 3-5 respectively. Formula One and the FIA now expect the 2020 F1 season to start in Europe in late May, however, this also may change as the number of COVID-19 cases within Europe keeps rising.
No replacement dates have been announced yet for either race, but it's good to see them take proactive measures to protect participants and fans after the series took so long to cancel Australia. Fourteen additional McLaren team members have been placed under a 14-day quarantine after coming into contact with the team member who tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, Sky Sports reports.
UPDATE [3/13, 11:51 a.m.]: American series are now adopting stricter responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. IndyCar announced the cancellation of all of its remaining events through April, including this weekend's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as well as its upcoming April events at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and at Circuit of the Americas in Austin.
NASCAR also announced that its upcoming events at Atlanta this weekend as well as its Homestead-Miami race next weekend have been postponed. A new date for these events was not announced at this time.
Given that the F1 Australian Grand Prix was canceled over a team member having coronavirus, professional events moving away from with merely running without spectators is a prudent move for now.
The American Rally Association announced the cancellation of the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood set for March 20-21 to ensure the safety of participants and fans during the COVID-19 outbreak. There are no plans to reschedule the event at the moment, although the series is considering several options. Information for how to proceed from here in terms of refunds and logistics will be announced in the next few days.
Popular drag racing event TX2K will now run this weekend's event at Houston Raceway Park without spectators. Only credentialed racers, crew, track officials, sponsors, media, VIPs and other essential personnel will be allowed on site. Fans who purchased tickets will be able to apply their ticket purchase towards the 2021 event next spring.
Outside of the U.S., World Rallycross also announced the postponement of its April 18-19 World RX of Barcelona-Catalunya following a Catalunya government decree to suspend all sporting events in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new date for the event has not been determined yet. This news comes as the World Health Organization declared Europe to be the new epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, reports CNBC.
The European Le Mans Series also announced the cancellation of of its April 4-5 test dates at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and its May 9-10 4 Hours of Monza race due to the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic. New dates for the two events will be announced at a later date.
UPDATE [5:47 p.m.]: Even the most amateur level of motorsports has changed their schedule in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The 24 Hours of Lemons, a humorous sub-$500 crapcan endurance series, announced today that all races for the next month are canceled.
This includes Lemons races at Willow Springs, New Orleans Motorsports Park and Autobahn. Willow Springs and New Orleans were originally set for March 28-29, and Autobahn was supposed to run on April 4-5. The series is working to reschedule these races later if possible, but in the meantime, congratulations—you have more time to get your car together while you're socially distancing yourself from polite society.
Lemons listed three options for teams affected by these changes in their usual voice, which team captains must communicate to Lemons staff:
1) Move your entry to a future race right away.
2) Wait a few days and see if we're able to shift to new dates.
3) Give up in disgust and get a refund.
While there haven't been any national-level announcements about schedule changes in other club- or crapcan-level racing groups, many like the Porsche Club of America, ChampCar Endurance Series or the National Auto Sport Association organize events by chapter, region or activity. So, if you've got an upcoming event coming up soon, pay close attention to your email in the coming days to watch for cancellations, delays and what to do if you can't participate or feel unsafe going.
The Drive will keep you updated as these stories develop.
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