Hamilton shocked Australian GP going ahead, says 'cash is king'

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Amid growing concerns about the health risk posed by the spread of coronavirus, six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has expressed surprise and shock at Formula One's decision to continue with this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.

The opening round of the F1 season is due to take place in Melbourne on Sunday after all ten teams arrived in Australia from Europe earlier this week.

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in growing concerns that F1 personnel could spread the disease in Australia, and at least five members of the F1 paddock have been isolated after showing symptoms that resulted in mandatory tests for the virus.

Hamilton was speaking several hours before one of those tests discovered a McLaren team member had tested positive for coronavirus. McLaren immediately withdrew from the race, leaving its status in doubt.

Against a backdrop of the World Health Organisation declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, the U.S.A. announcing travel restrictions on Europe and the NBA suspending its season, Hamilton raised his concerns about Sunday's race going ahead.

"I am really very, very surprised that we are here," he said during Thursday afternoon's FIA driver press conference. "I think in motorsport it's great that we have racing, but I think it's really shocking that we are all sitting in this room.

"There are so many fans here today and it seems like the rest of the world is reacting, probably a little bit late, but we have already seen this morning that Trump has shut down the borders with Europe to the States and you are seeing the NBA being suspended, yet Formula One continues to go on.

"It's a concern I think for the people here - it's quite a big circus that's come here and it's definitely concerning for me."

Asked if he knew why F1 was pressing ahead with the race, he added: "Cash is king ... I don't know. Honestly, I don't know. I can't add much more to it.

"I don't feel like I should shy away from my opinion. The fact is we are here and I just really want to be as careful as we can be in touching doors and surfaces, and I hope everyone has hand sanitizer.

"Really for the fans, I really hope they are taking precautions. I was walking through and everything is going ahead as normal, like it is a normal day, but I don't think it really is. I just hope all the fans stay safe and I hope we get through this weekend and we don't have any fatalities or things in the future."

A decision to cancel the race lies with Formula One and the sport's governing body, the FIA, but could be taken out of their hands by a ruling from either local or federal governments in Australia.

Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel said he trusted F1's judgement over the issue, but said it was right for members of the paddock to raise questions.

"You realise that a lot of sport competitions get postponed and cancelled, and it's fair, like Lewis said, to ask the question why," Vettel said. "Obviously we have to trust the FIA and F1 to take precautions as much as they can, but I think the answer that nobody can give you at the moment is how much you can control what's going on. As a matter of fact, we are here and you just try to take care as much as you can."

Vettel added that should anyone related to F1 die as a result of the spread of coronavirus, the drivers -- through their union the GPDA -- would be forced to take collective action to put a halt to racing.

"I think my stand -- and I hope others would agree -- is that we hope it doesn't get that far," he said. "If it were to get that far, then for sure you would pull the handbrake.

"I think we are a group of 20 guys and I think we got together over the last years, for various circumstances and various topics, and I think we share a common opinion on big decisions and that would qualify as a very big decision.

"Ultimately, as I said before, you look at yourself and I think we would be mature enough to look after yourselves and pull the handbrake in that case."

The opening practice session for the Australian Grand Prix is due to get underway at 12:00 local time in Melbourne.