'Different atmosphere' - virus precautions as F1 drivers arrive for new season

Melbourne (AFP) –


Red Bull's Max Verstappen said drivers were trying "to make the best" of the Australian Grand Prix during the coronavirus outbreak, as teams limit contact with fans and the media to protect their health.

The season-opening race in Melbourne is set to go ahead as scheduled this weekend despite mounting fears about the spread of the disease.

Three Formula One team members -- two from Haas and one from McLaren -- were put into isolation on Wednesday pending the outcome of tests after showing flu-like symptoms typical of the disease.

Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) chief Andrew Westacott said in a statement he was "monitoring the situation in conjunction with Formula 1 and the FIA (International Automobile Federation)".

Despite concerns, fans flocked to Albert Park on Thursday on the first open day for a Supercars qualifying session featuring ex-Formula One stars Rubens Barrichello and Giancarlo Fisichella.

The first official F1 practice sessions start on Friday.

"Of course, it's all tricky at the moment but we are trying to make the best of it and try to get on with the start of the season and hopefully we have an exciting weekend," Verstappen told reporters.

"You try to do the whole week as normal as possible, but of course like we are doing at the moment, you try to take a little bit of a precaution."

In an attempt to limit interaction between drivers and fans, autograph sessions at Albert Park have been replaced by question and answer interviews, with selfies banned.

Media events have also been hit with Renault's Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon "excused" from a press conference Wednesday and a two-metre exclusion zone enforced around Verstappen and Alex Albon at a Red Bull function.

Ocon was spotted wearing a mask in the paddock on Thursday, while the Williams team cancelled open TV sessions for the duration of the weekend and limited its hospitality area to team members.

"Even now walking around Melbourne it's obviously a different kind of atmosphere to what it's been like in the past," Albon said.

The coronavirus has already hurt the sport with April's Chinese Grand Prix postponed, while the second race of the year in Bahrain will be held without spectators.

The Australian Grand Prix Corporation said it had been working closely with health authorities to take additional precautions at Albert Park, including having hand sanitiser available across public areas and corporate facilities.

They have also boosted cleaning and disinfection programmes, while ensuring proper protocols were in place to respond to suspected COVID-19 cases.

Australia has seen more than 130 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and three deaths.

Over the weekend, the FIA said it was establishing what it called a "crisis cell" to meet every two days to monitor the rapidly increasing global threat posed by the virus.