By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) -Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton said on Thursday Formula One could be moving too fast with the decision to allow a 140,000-capacity crowd at his home British Grand Prix next month.
The sport announced that hundreds of thousands of fans could attend the July 16-18 grand prix at Silverstone in a significant easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
That would be the biggest crowd at a British sporting event since the pandemic triggered a national lockdown in March last year.
The last pre-pandemic race held at the circuit with spectators in 2019 saw a three-day attendance of 351,000 and 141,000 on Sunday. The circuit hosted two races last year, both without a crowd.
"I'm kind of split," Mercedes driver Hamilton told reporters ahead of the Styrian Grand Prix at Austria's Red Bull Ring.
"I can't tell you how excited I am to see people and the British crowd, because it is the best crowd of the whole year.
"Obviously, I watch the news so I hear about the (COVID-19) cases going up massively in the UK and so on that side I worry for people, naturally."
"It feels a bit premature to me," he added.
Informed that everyone attending would have to be vaccinated, or test negative for the virus, Hamilton, who is outspoken on social issues, said that was a good thing but it did not change his opinion.
"I like to err on the side of caution and slowly build up rather than full pelt and using our British fans as a test," he said.
Silverstone, a home GP for the majority of teams, joins Wimbledon tennis, golf's British Open and the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final at Wembley in the British government's Event Research Programme (ERP).
The circuit's managing director Stuart Pringle told Reuters the race would end about nine hours before for all restrictions were due to be lifted anyway, and the ERP programme was data driven.
"The reasons why we are the largest attendance of any sporting event is because we are the last one of the Events Research Programme which has been in operation now for some months," he added.
He said the crowd would not have been sanctioned if the data indicated it was unsafe.
"I'm very grateful to Lewis for his concern about our fans but he's probably not close to the data of the Events Research Programme," added Pringle.
Other British drivers Lando Norris of McLaren and Williams' George Russell were effusive.
"I'm very, very happy. Delighted in fact," said Norris. "We missed it a lot last year. It's been nice slowly having more and more through this season already here and there.
"Just to have them all back and feeling more normal again is something I'm very excited for."
Some 15,000 are expected for Sunday's Styrian Grand Prix, with many more to be allowed at the following weekend's Austrian Grand Prix at the same circuit.
"It is fantastic news that Silverstone will be a full capacity event," said Formula One chief executive Stefano Domenicali.
"It will be an incredible weekend with hundreds of thousands of fans being there to see our first ever Sprint event on the Saturday and the main event on Sunday."
The grand prix will be the first to try out a new format, with qualifying on Friday and then a sprint race on Saturday to determine the grid for Sunday's race.
Points will also be awarded to the top three finishers on Saturday.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond)