The last couple of days have seen some robust defence of the F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain.
The sport’s commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone has briefed some of the Fleet Street (UK newspaper) journalists that the teams are 100% behind it and the FIA has also said that it thinks the event would help to heal tensions in the country. This is despite a return of violence to the streets of the country, on the anniversary of the Day of Rage. So what are we to make of it, with two months to go to the event?
Attention now focusses on the teams, to see whether their appetite to race in Bahrain is as strong as Ecclestone suggests. All eyes will focus particularly on McLaren’s team principal Martin Whitmarsh who put his signature to the letter last autumn telling the FIA that the teams would not attend a rescheduled 2011 event. McLaren’s main shareholder is the Bahraini investment fund Mumtalakat and Whitmarsh’s actions did not endear him to his paymasters last time.
This time things are different on a number of levels: the F1 Teams’ Association, of which Whitmarsh is also chairman, now represents only 8 of the 12 F1 teams. And the Bahraini regime believes that it has done enough with an independent review of the troubles of 2011 and some implementation of its findings, to set the country on the road to change. Opposition groups disagree and are still protesting. So who are we to believe?
There is clearly good and bad on both sides.
Tuesday marked the first anniversary of the ‘Day of Rage’, when pro-democracy demonstrations in the country begun and which prompted a bloody crackdown by the authorities.
On Monday night there was a fresh flare-up of hostilities between protestors and security forces in villages on the outskirts of the capital Manama. Youths were reported to have thrown petrol bombs at police cars, with the police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The kingdom’s response to the trouble was to deploy armoured vehicles in Manama and the surrounding areas for the first time since martial law in the country was lifted last June, although further clashes were reported near the focal point of last year’s protests, the former Pearl Roundabout.
Although the renewed violence hasn’t been on the scale of 12 months ago, the events of the last two days have not gone unnoticed at the UN whose Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement in which he voiced concern over the latest escalation of trouble and called for restraint from both sides.
The response from the F1 authorities to both the action on the streets and to the letter from Members of the UK parliament calling for the FIA to call the event off – has also been firm; both Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA say that the April 22 Grand Prix will go ahead as scheduled.
Ecclestone told the Guardian: “I expected there was going to be a big uprising today, with the anniversary. But I think what happened, apparently, was that here were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don’t think it’s anything serious at all.
“It doesn’t change our position in any shape or form. If the people in Bahrain [the government] say, ‘Look Bernie, it wouldn’t be good for you to come over here,’ then I would think again. That is what they said last year.”
Meanwhile, the FIA, who were criticised for its handling of last year’s situation when the season-opening race was postponed, reinstated and then eventually cancelled altogether following opposition from the teams, said in a statement that it “like many in the diplomatic community in the kingdom, the main political opposition…believes the staging of a Grand Prix would be beneficial in bridging some of the difficulties Bahrain is experiencing”.
That viewpoint had also been made by an all-party group of UK MPs in a letter to The Times, which was contrary to a letter written by members of the House of Lords to the same newspaper last week which urged F1 not to return to Bahrain yet.
Given the state of play at the moment, it’s inevitable that the opposition will take the opportunity to make its point when F1 comes to town, not by disrupting the event because it will be easy for the authorities to secure the circuit, but downtown, where the teams, media and sponsors’ guests stay. It’s a prospect that few relish.