Formula One season begins amid coronavirus uncertainty and Ferrari suspicions

Australian Grand Prix set to mark new season, although health and safety concerns remain the top priority

The business of Grand Prix racing begins on Thursday in Melbourne to a landscape of unprecedented uncertainty.

For a start, there is no guarantee Sunday’s opening race of the season will even happen.

Late on Wednesday night one team member from McLaren and two from Haas – both British-based teams – were in self-isolation awaiting the results of tests for Covid-19

The driver’s organisation, the GPDA, is demanding talks with officials as fears grow.

And if the Australian Grand Prix does manage to get off the grid will it be to empty grandstands? The second round is already being held behind closed doors in Bahrain, the third in Vietnam is in danger and the fourth, in China, postponed.

Despite Covid-19 sweeping the globe the powers-that-be (ie the FIA governing body, owners Liberty Media and local governments) have decided to carry on regardless. The typically Australian answer to questions about a race behind closed doors was "No chance".

Miley Cyrus cancelled her bushfire charity concert due to be held this same weekend in Melbourne because of “state, local, national and international” advice. F1, it seems, is either not getting the same advice, not talking to the same people or choosing not to listen.

Which seems rank irresponsibility. Laughing in the face of a tsunami or earthquake as F1 regularly does is very different from potentially dragging a deadly virus around the world just for the sake of a few laps in a race machine.

All football in Italy has been cancelled as 633 deaths – the largest number outside China – were recorded. Football has also been cancelled in Spain, France, Germany and Japan.

Daftest of all is that with Italy in virtual lockdown Ferrari, AlphaTauri and Pirelli have been allowed to set up camp in Albert Park as if nothing has happened just days before all tourists from the country were banned.

The risk to the sport itself is, presumably, minimal but that doesn't prevent it potentially being a super carrier with thousands of personnel jumping from one continent to another, one country to another potentially adding to the issues of a planet desperately trying to contain the pandemic.

At the time of writing there are over 121,000 cases worldwide and 4,500 deaths.

Of course, F1 can say it is only staging the event and it is down to the Victorian state and national governments to ultimately decide whether people will be allowed to attend.

Behind the scenes the atmosphere is no less febrile with the non-Ferrari teams in open rebellion at the FIA’s refusal to reveal the outcome of the ‘fuelgate’ investigation into allegations Maranello circumvented fuel flow rules last season.

The ‘punishment’ dished out was akin to a community service order.

The FIA tried to sneak out an opaque judgement which did little more than leave them, as rule-makers, in the dock alongside Ferrari.

In the past, teams caught cheating have been hit with fines as high as $50 million (Dh183.6m) and, so the feeling goes, if Ferrari are not guilty they must be exonerated. If guilty punished. The suspicion is that the FIA rules were too ‘grey’ and full disclosure would embarrass the officials more than the guys in red.

As far as the racing goes, the 2020 season, itself, could be anything from an all-time epic to an utterly damp squib. Unchanged regulations should make the competition close and fierce.

But with an expensive new era beginning in 2021 those who are uncompetitive will quickly switch their focus to the future to get a jump on the rest for next year. Even Ferrari have admitted that may include them.

Mercedes are easy favourites to win a seventh successive constructors title, but their race machines have looked more fragile than in previous seasons.

Red Bull are their biggest challengers, followed, hopefully, by Ferrari and Racing Point looking good for podiums, if not wins, if the top three falter.  New investment from Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll is sure to have a big impact.

The story lines from the cockpit are legion: Lewis Hamilton bids for a seventh title to equal Michael Schumacher’s record. Teammate Valtteri Bottas must, finally, beat him as Nico Rosberg did or his top-line career is over.

It is not hyperbole to say Sebastian Vettel's career is in jeopardy. Eclipsed by relative rookie Charles Leclerc last season, the days of the four-time chamion are numbered if that continues.

At Red Bull can Alex Albon blossom in the face of Max Verstappen’s blistering pace? Meanwhile, Renault is the season’s dark horse.

As the final countdown begins, it’s actually easier to say who will finish the season as top dogs than it is to even say who will start it. Or, even, when it will start ?

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