'Different atmosphere' in F1 paddock as coronavirus fears hit season-opening Australian GP

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Formula 1. Image: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP
Formula 1. Image: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP

Red Bull's Max Verstappen said drivers were trying "to make the best" of the Australian Grand Prix during the coronavirus outbreak as two more staff from Haas were isolated Thursday and teams limited contact with fans.

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

Five Formula One team members -- four from Haas and one from McLaren -- are now in isolation pending the outcome of tests after showing flu-like symptoms typical of the virus.

Haas team principal Guenther Steiner said they had not yet discussed what to do if a positive test was confirmed.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," he said.

"We take it seriously, if someone has something then we ask them to tell us as soon as possible and not hide it, which would be the worst thing to do."

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.

"I'm not worried, I'm washing my hands and that's the best thing to do," said spectator Robert Clarke as he made use of a hand-sanitiser station.

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In an attempt to limit interaction between drivers and fans, autograph sessions at Albert Park have been replaced by question and answer interviews, with selfies banned.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 sanitisers available across public areas and corporate facilities.

Cleaning and disinfection programmes have been increased while protocols have been implemented to respond to any suspected COVID-19 cases.

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

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

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