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F1 cancels season-opening Australian GP amid virus concerns

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain and Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia, right, talk during a press conference at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, on March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Formula One organizers canceled the season-opening Australian Grand Prix just hours ahead of the first official practice session because of concern over the spreading coronavirus.

    The sport's governing body, FIA, issued a joint statement with F1 and the Australian Grand Prix to confirm the cancellation of the race Friday morning local time. It followed hours of speculation after McLaren's decision to withdraw because one of its team members tested positive to the virus.

    FIA said a meeting involving the nine remaining team principals and organizers "concluded with a majority view of the teams that the race should not go ahead."

    "All parties took into consideration the huge efforts of the AGPC, Motorsport Australia, staff and volunteers to stage the opening round, however concluded that the safety of all members of the Formula 1 family and the wider community, as well as the fairness of the competition take priority," the statement said.

    There had been two practice sessions scheduled for Friday, with qualifying Saturday for Sunday's GP. No fans had been allowed into the Albert Park circuit on Friday morning.

    Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton had earlier questioned the wisdom of racing this weekend.

    "I am really very, very surprised we're here ... it's shocking we're all sitting in this room," Hamilton said at the first official news conference Thursday ahead of Sunday's Grand Prix. "It seems that the rest of the world is already reacting a little bit late ... yet Formula One continues."

    Hamilton's Mercedes team later urged FIA to cancel or postpone the race.

    In conflicting on-again, off-again reports, the BBC reported that the race had been postponed, citing two unidentified sources, before Australian Grand Prix Corporation Chairman Paul Little told Australia's Channel 9 on Friday that the event would go ahead.

    Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said if the race went ahead, it would proceed without fans.

    There were long queues of people waiting to get into Albert Park early Friday but the gates remained closed and none of the scheduled events got underway.

    More than 300,000 fans regularly attend the Australian GP at the Albert Park circuit over the first four days of the season. This year was expected to be no different, despite the cancellation of some other large-scale public gatherings.

    Asked why he thought organizers were persisting with the race, Hamilton said "cash is king."

    Members of the U.S.-backed Haas team had also been in isolation but they were cleared after tests, with Australian GP organizers saying state health authorities had confirmed only one positive case in eight F1-related tests conducted so far.

    There have been more than 126,300 cases and 4,600 deaths globally since the virus outbreak started in China late last year.

    Most people quickly recover from the virus after experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

    According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks.

    The Chinese Grand Prix has already been postponed, and the Bahrain GP is expected to go ahead at a circuit without fans.

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