The first day’s running at the Sakhir circuit took place against in an edgy atmosphere as, for the first time in this Bahrain saga, events outside the circuit had a direct effect on the running of the Grand Prix.
Force India decided not to run in second practice, to respect the wishes of their staff who have expressed concern about their safety travelling back from the circuit at night. They came under pressure to revise their decision over the lunch break, but clearly there is a lot of anxiety among team members, especially as there appears to have been a second incident involving the team, which has not been discussed and the management led by Bob Fernley, needed to come up with a plan which respected his staff’s growing concerns.
So the mechanics started work on stripping the cars down after FP1, giving themselves a four hours head start on the worksheet. This should lead to them leaving the track before darkness falls around 7pm.
Meanwhile Sauber was forced to issue a statement saying that an incident involving 12 of their team members was not as dramatic as the rumours suggested. They said that they had merely witnessed masked men throwing firebombs on the opposite carriageway of the road and had not been directly involved in the incident.
For most people here there is no sign of any trouble, the town seems eerily quiet and only the significant police presence and the odd tank on the highway between Manama and the track indicates anything out of the ordinary. But clearly for anyone caught up in spontaneous violence, it is frightening.
On track the picture emerging is of what looks like a fascinating Grand Prix, provided that it goes ahead. Nico Rosberg set the fastest time on track, the Mercedes looking the fastest car here once again, particularly on the race track. But the tyres are going to be tricky to manage and the picture will be rapidly changing over the 57 laps of the race. It’s clear that the soft tyre is the one to qualify on for the front runners, but it will probably last only 7 or 8 laps in the opening stint of the race. Rosberg did a simulation of a qualifying lap, then 8 lap opening stint followed by a pit stop for the medium. This is likely to be a pattern we will see on Sunday. Michael Schumacher didn’t get to do a quick lap on soft tyres as he got blocked having set the fastest Sector 1 time, by one of the Caterhams.
It looks like there is only one lap in the soft tyre, though, so it will be vital to do a perfect job on the one lap they get in qualifying. After that the tyre performance drops off by 1.2 seconds per lap.
Red Bull ran both cars in the updated exhaust specification today, with Vettel and Webber up the sharp end in both sessions. McLaren had what team boss Martin Whitmarsh described as a “tricky” day, lacking grip on this Sakhir circuit, but there are sure to be contenders.
Immediately after FP2 Bernie Ecclestone and the Crown Prince of Bahrain gave an impromptu press conference in which the Crown Prince said that to cancel the race would be to encourage extremism,
“I think cancelling just empowers extremists,” he said. “I think for those of us who are trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, and get people working together.
“It allows us to celebrate our nation as an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive. So I actually think that having the race has prevented extremists from doing what they think they need to do out of the world’s attention.”
Confusingly he then said admitted that the incident in which Force India staff were involved was “dangerous”, but “not directed at F1. “It goes to show that there are people who are out to cause chaos,” he said. This is despite pre-event assurances from Bahraini authorities, the FIA and Ecclestone that F1 personnel would not face any danger by coming to this country at this delicate moment to race.
“You [British people] had these problems last year in your country and there is a very big difference between protesting for political rights and rioting,” the Crown Prince added, “And the attack that happened around Force India was aimed at the police. It was unprovoked, and it was quite dangerous. But at no time was anyone from F1 in danger.”
There are several reports from F1 personnel who went into the downtown area last night of sightings of masked youths carrying Molotov cocktails. F1 people are treading carefully this evening, so as not to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But the increasing calls for the race to be cancelled by British politicians and the growing sense of anxiety inside the paddock did not wash with the team principals when they took part in an FIA press conference this afternoon.
“People seem to be trying to do something to make sure that this event is not happening,” said Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali in a fractious press conference, where the team principals refused to get drawn into a discussion about the rights and wrongs of going ahead with this race. Clearly they feel that the media has played its part in stirring up a growing sense of crisis.
Bob Fernley then said something very confusing: “Hopefully the F1 programme has brought the world’s media here and gives a good platform for debate and hopefully it will help with the healing process for Bahrain and that’s why we are here,” he said.
This seems to contradict what was said in the run up to this race, which is that F1 is here not to get involved in politics, but for sport, because the event is on the calendar and therefore counts for the championship.
This situation needs a firm hand over the next 24 hours. Time will tell what may happen this evening and tomorrow in Manama. Protesters will have noticed the effect Wednesday’s incident has had on the sport, the way the news agenda has been dominated by it.
At the moment it is nothing more than one team missing one session. But hopefully there will not be further events which lead to more widespread disruption.
BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX, Free Practice
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m32.816s 35
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m33.262s + 0.446 26
3. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m33.525s + 0.709 28
4. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m33.747s + 0.931 26
5. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m33.862s + 1.046 31
6. Jenson Button McLaren 1m34.246s + 1.430 28
7. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m34.411s + 1.595 34
8. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m34.449s + 1.633 31
9. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m34.615s + 1.799 32
10. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m34.893s + 2.077 34
11. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m34.895s + 2.079 29
12. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m34.941s + 2.125 29
13. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m35.183s + 2.367 33
14. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m35.229s + 2.413 26
15. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m35.459s + 2.643 38
16. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1m35.913s + 3.097 32
17. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1m35.968s + 3.152 35
18. Bruno Senna Williams 1m36.169s + 3.353 30
19. Timo Glock Marussia 1m36.587s + 3.771 32
20. Charles Pic Marussia 1m37.803s + 4.987 33
21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1m37.812s + 4.996 28
22. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m39.649s + 6.833 27