17 March 2020

Notebook from nowhere in particular

The Australian Grand Prix was, I think it is fair to say, the strangest race weekend that I have even taken part in. Firstly, there wasn’t a Grand Prix… and secondly, well, the world has turned upside-down and none of us can even begin to contemplate when things will get back to normal. All we have is speculation and numbers that we don’t really understand about the coronavirus Covid-19.

As a result of all this, the green notebook doesn't have a lot in it. A few rumours of little importance, a note saying that Ferrari and the FIA had been incredibly lucky that the crisis swept away the dubious-looking settlement over the 2019 engine. The other notes were about how the Grand Prix was called off.

I still believe, despite some of the more lurid reporting (a percentage of which has been done by people who were not there in Melbourne), that in the circumstances F1 shut the race down pretty quickly. And I don’t see that it was wrong to go when the decisions were made to go. Even now, five days after all of this happened, Australia’s coronavirus crisis is still not growing that quickly. Today, there are only 452 confirmed cases. However, most of the growth patterns in countries thus far have reached a point at which the numbers explode exponentially, as hidden cases come to light, and Australia will probably not be very different.

I have been watching the virus in my JSBM newsletter going back into January because I felt it would turn into something really bad. I think it absurd to try to put dates on anything. We won’t be going racing for a while, despite the fact that everyone hopes that it will all blow over quickly. Even when the infection rates plateau, you cannot just arrive and hold a motor race. Everything is seriously disrupted and in places it isn’t even messed up yet.

I think we will see, in the fullness of time, that the Chinese did a remarkable job to contain the initial outbreak. If you look at what is now happening in Europe – based on the figures we have – it is far worse. One can speculate that this is because the Chinese population is used to doing what they are told by their government, while in Europe people struggle to obey rules they don’t like.  Who knows where it will end? And if the experts in the health industries don’t know where it is going, what chance is there that any F1 reporters will have the answers? It’s daft to even consider it.

However, it is easy for people who don’t understand the complexities of the sport’s contracts to say things should have been different, but I still believe they did a pretty good job, given that the state of Victoria was pushing hard to keep the race going. In the end events forced the issue when the government’s Chief Medical Officer changed his opinion and the race was knocked on the head.

Could it have been done more quickly? Possibly, but no-one in F1 had disaster plans to cover this kind of thing. Why would they? The World Championship is 70 years old and we’ve never seen anything like this before. And the medical world is still trying to understand what is happening.

I think it is foolish to try to predict too much, except that things will happen more slowly than the optimists hope. I had a conversation with one of the team principals in Melbourne about where things were going and after a while they said: “Well, thanks for that. It’s really depressing”. I could only say that it was simply an opinion based on numbers I’d been following for seven weeks, and that it was not by any means a worst case scenario.

In fact, things have been much worse than I imagined.

I believe in being positive about things, but I also think one must be pragmatic and accept realities, even if they are unpalatable.

I have been reminded many times in recent days of Voltaire’s extraordinary picaresque novel Candide, written in the 18th Century, which is one of the greatest books of Western literature. It is as fresh and as sharp today as it was when it was written, a satire about religion, society, wealth, philosophy and hypocrisy, which highlights that we live in a world of chaos which we can never really control.

For those who don’t know it, it is the story of a character called Candide, who is naïvete personified, who goes through a series of what were real life events at the time, including earthquakes, religious purges, political executions and so much more, with different travelling companions, espousing different philosophies. The book exposed the hypocrisies of the time. Candide wants always to believe the best in people, but is constantly disappointed and begins to understand that humanity doesn’t change and all we can ever hope to do is to control our own lives and what we do as individuals. We cannot individually change the world, but we can avoid misery by not thinking too much about what life throws at us and by working to find joy and reward from creating our own worlds, in effect saying that happiness comes from within.

The book ends with the celebrated words: “Oui, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin”, which translates as “Yes, but we have to look after our own garden…”

With the coronavirus shutting down so much in our lives, including the sport we love, we may find ourselves spending a lot of time actually looking after our own gardens.

Hopefully, when the sport begins to revive, whenever that may be, we will be wiser for it, and will gain some perspective about what is really important.

It is certainly a good moment to reflect…

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