Yesterday’s robust announcement from the F1 authorities and teams that the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead appears to have galvanised opposition and provoked a reaction on the streets of the Gulf state.
A planned funeral march for Ahmed Ismail, a protestor who was shot by security forces last week, turned violent while there were strong words of condemnation from human rights groups and activists in the country.
A report by AP for the American ABC network featured the following passage,
‘ “No F1, no F1. … They killed my son in cold blood,” sobbed Ismail’s mother, Makyia Ahmed, who said her son had been a volunteer at previous F1 races.’
This direct connection with F1 and politics – between F1 and life and death is the thing that is most concerning about this situation. Risk assessments indicate that F1 personnel are unlikely to face any personal security risks, but it is the reputational damage for the sport and its participants which is at risk.
This afternoon a protest is planned outside the British embassy in Bahrain and all eyes will be on how that evolves. This will give an indication of what the F1 circus can expect when it sets foot in the country next week.
It is fanciful to believe that there will be no protests against the race; the crucial question is of scale and seriousness. Will opposition amount to nothing more than a few kids throwing molotov cocktails at police and setting fire to tyres in the road? Or is there a danger of things escalating?
“There’s nothing happening (in Bahrain),” Ecclestone said in Shanghai on Friday. “I know people that live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.”
I have two independent sources in the country, who largely agree that the stories of opposition have been greatly exaggerated. Getting an accurate read on the scale of the opposition is very difficult. But it also means that F1 doesn’t really know what it will face next week. It could be minimal, or it could shock them out of complacency. No-one really knows.
This uncertainty weighs on many people working in F1.
I spoke to Ecclestone yesterday as well as to several team principals. The noon meeting at which Ecclestone briefed them on Bahrain also covered other subjects and according to Christian Horner, Bahrain was only a ‘brief’ item on the agenda.
The teams did not oppose the decision to race next week, according to Horner and they have accepted the FIA’s assessment of the situation. Interestingly this extends to not having any contingency plans for getting staff out of the country should protests escalate when the teams are on the ground in Bahrain next week. This is odd because F1 teams tend to plan ‘worst case scenarios’ in most situations.
“We haven’t developed that much to be honest,” said Lotus F1 boss Eric Boullier. “We believe it will be a normal weekend. We just need to make sure that everyone is safe and happy.
“We are happy to go and race in Bahrain. We just make sure that the safety is respected for all our people, no special issue.”
The list of media organisations choosing not to attend the race is small, but growing. Sky Germany joined Finnish and Japanese TV in planning to call the race from their home base and several journalists plan to do likewise.
They say a week is a long time in politics; this situation is highly political and clearly it’s going to be a very long week indeed.