When F1 bosses revealed their revised schedule for 2021, even though the Australian Grand Prix had been postponed from March to November, the ongoing uncertainty over the pandemic meant that, like many, it was feared the race may still not happen.
However, Australian Grand Prix Corporation boss Andrew Westacott is confident that the race will go ahead, and though hopeful that fans will be able to attend, admits that it is possible the event could be held behind closed doors.
“It’s not a hypothetical that I’m considering at the moment, because I actually think that we will be able to have a crowd,” he tells Speedcafe.com. “But the view would be if we’re committed and we’re on the calendar then that’s a commitment that we intend to honour of the Grand Prix Corporation, and so therefore the answer would be, we’d go ahead.
“My preference, and absolute desire is to work through that,” he adds. “If we can have the drivers and teams coming here into Australia, we’ll be able to work.
“I’ve said many a time we’ve got 176 hectares of outdoor park; we’ve got 10.6 kilometres of track frontage; we’ve got wonderfully adaptable designs for corporate facilities for grandstands and open air for general admission. So, in many regards, Albert Park simulates outdoor parks, footpaths, shopping malls, beaches and entertainment venues.
“So therefore logic says, why couldn’t there be a crowd as long as we’re making sure that there’s QR codes and traceability everywhere. I think we can achieve it really well.
“I’m actually excited by a springtime event nine days before summer, because I think it really is an opportunity to be a special event.”
It seems like only yesterday, that we saw fans standing outside the Albert Park track, waiting to be admitted, just hours before opening practice was due to get underway. Meanwhile, inside the circuit, having had team members test positive, McLaren withdrew from the event while Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton were already back in their hotels and planning the journeys home.
While there can be no repeats this year, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the Albert Park facility is temporary and therefore work has to get underway months in advance, while tickets also have to made available in order for fans to make their travel arrangements.
“Those decisions need to be made five to six months out is my general view,” says Westacott. “We need to provide certainty, because without certainty it’s very, very difficult for local and particularly interstate fans to plan holidays and travel, and annual leave from work and the commitments financially to be at the event. So we’ve got to commit a fair time out.
“Now, I do put my hand up and say in the world of COVID that’s often at odds with what – long-term planning – is at odds with what COVID produces,” he admits. “But with vaccines and us all learning to live with COVID and, things like face masks and health practices, and work practices. But we’ll always maintain flexibility, we’ll always have the caveats of health and guidance from government.”
At present the eyes of F1, indeed the sporting world, are on Melbourne as it prepares to host the Australian Open, the event already making the headlines due to the strict quarantine protocols the players must observe.
“It’s a litmus test of the highest regard,” says Westacott. “I want it to go smoothly for Victoria, for the Australian Open, for the organisers, for the fans, and I also believe that that can occur.
“It’s all about that risk mitigation,” he adds, “it’s all about processes being put in place, and there’ll be learnings that tighten some procedures, and there’s going to be learnings that maybe allow relaxed or adjusted procedures.
“We’ll watch carefully, we’ll work with quarantine, COVID quarantine Victoria, CQV, we’ll work with DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) and government to really make sure that whatever they learn out of the Australian Open can be put to benefit to streamline the processes for Formula One, and make it continually safer, and maybe even remove any frustrations for the visiting contingent and also for the people of Melbourne.”