DUBAI (Reuters) – The Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix will go ahead on March 22 without fans due to the coronavirus crisis, a blow to the Gulf Arab state’s important tourism sector.
Bahrain, which is hosting the second round of the Formula One season at the Sakhir circuit outside Manama, has reported 83 cases of the virus, mostly linked to people who had traveled to Iran.
“Bahrain has made the decision to hold this year’s (race) as a participants-only event,” organizers said on Sunday.
“Convening a major sporting event, which is open to the public and allows thousands of international travelers and local fans to interact in close proximity would not be the right thing to do at the present time,” they added.
“To ensure that neither the sport, nor its global supporter base, is unduly impacted, the race weekend itself will still go ahead as a televised event.”
Bahrain is the second F1 race casualty of the virus. The Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai scheduled for April 19 has already been postponed.
Racing without fans will be a first for the sport, although former commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone once mooted the idea of a ‘VIP grand prix’ at France’s Le Castellet circuit with only invited guests.
A Bahrain International Circuit spokesman said accredited media would attend as usual.
Concerts featuring DJ’s Afrojack and Don Diablo over the race weekend have been canceled.
“We know how disappointed many will be by this news…but safety has to remain our utmost priority,” the circuit said.
Bahrain has suspended flights to some destinations over concerns of the rapidly spreading virus.
It has also asked people entering the country who have recently visited Italy, South Korea, Egypt and Lebanon to isolate themselves for two weeks.
Italy has ordered a virtual lockdown across a swathe of its wealthy north, including financial capital Milan, in a drastic attempt to try to contain a rapidly growing outbreak of coronavirus.
The Maranello base of Formula One’s oldest and most successful team Ferrari is within the affected area.
Ferrari and Red Bull-owned AlphaTauri, who are based in Faenza, will still race in Bahrain because they will be coming from Australia which hosts the opening race in Melbourne next weekend.
“Depending on where they flew through on the way from Melbourne, there is a process that you go through,” the circuit spokesman said of the Italian teams.
Formula One has discussed arranging a special charter for Italians working in Formula One to avoid transit through airports in countries affected by the virus.
Organizers will refund fans who had bought tickets, whose sales were suspended last week.
Bahrain’s biggest global sporting event reported a three-day crowd of 97,000 in 2019, a record for the event, with 34,000 on the Sunday.
That attendance is small compared to other races, with 202,146 the average Formula One three-day crowd in 2019.
Tourism is an important contributor to Bahrain’s economy, which in recent years has been in deficit and sought bailouts from its wealthier Gulf Arab neighbors, and the race brings global exposure with millions of viewers.
Concerns over rapid spread of the coronavirus, which has killed 145 people and infected 5,823 others in Iran, has led to a raft of major events including concerts being canceled in the Gulf region.
Formula One has two races in the Middle East, with Abu Dhabi hosting the closing race in November.
MotoGP’s season-opening race in Qatar this weekend was called off, with only the Moto2 and Moto3 support categories racing because riders were already there for a previous test.
Writing by Alexander Cornwell/Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by Mark Potter, Louise Heavens and Toby Davis
Image: FILE PHOTO: General view of Bahrain Seef district in Manama, Bahrain, June 20, 2019. REUTERS/ Hamad I Mohammed