The F1 paddock went about its everyday business today, media briefings, team managers’ meetings, all gearing up for Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton says that he’s a better man in 2012 for his difficult years, Sebastian Vettel says that he’s going to use the new specification Red Bull exhausts, Michael Schumacher says that Mercedes’ challenge is to hit the sweet spot on the race tyres, like they did in China.
The Grand Prix is moving up into gear. Everywhere there are banners proclaiming that Bahrain is “UniF1ied”, while the slogan “back on track” is also evident. It’s quite surprising the extent to which the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have allowed the government to use the F1 brand in its political messaging about the country moving forward.
The road to the circuit is lined with chequered flags interlinked with Bahraini flags. A former leader of the opposition Al Wefaq opposition party, Jasim Husain, was paraded around the paddock this morning (see photo above), giving the event the thumbs up, but outside in the real world, the anti F1 rhetoric from the current opposition and from human rights campaigners is unequivocal.
Inside the paddock there is an edge in the air, a sense of uneasy calm, for the moment. Pre-race uncertainty and anxiety about what kind of situation the hard working professionals of this sport would be walking into this weekend, found a focus with an incident involving four Force India technicians and mechanics, who stumbled into a frightening incident on Wednesday night as they drove back into town at 8pm along the highway.
A temporary road block had been thrown up by activists and in the melee as the traffic slowed, a Molotov cocktail was thrown, which landed a few metres from their car. There was no sense that they were targeted, nor that the perpetrators had any idea that there were F1 people in the traffic jam, but it is the kind of spontaneous and random act of violence which is hard to anticipate or prevent, which no-one wants to get caught in. Two members of the team, one of whom was not even in the car, have been allowed to travel back to the UK.
Comparisons are often made with the road out of the circuit in Sao Paolo, where gun toting gangs used to occasionally terrorise F1 personnel in their cars until the police cleaned up the slum area for last year’s race. Such an incident happened to Jenson Button and his entourage two years ago, as well as to several mechanics. Sao Paolo is a place where it is easy to get mugged on the street, you have to take care, but this is different as one doesn’t feel targeted in that sense. However there is a feeling of volatility, a fear of getting caught up in someone else’s violent protest. The police, after all, cannot be everywhere all the time.
“My wife happened to be travelling on that road at the same time (as the Force India incident) and she sent me a picture of it,” said Zayed al Zayani, the manager of the Bahrain International Circuit. “It was an unfortunate incident and hopefully it won’t happen again.
“We are ‘back on track’ in the sense that the cars are racing on our track. Some people have interpreted that we are saying that the country is back on track. I don’t think so and I’ve made it clear that politically there is a long way to go to get the stability we had before. But that’s not our job, that’s left to the government; we run a social and sports event.”
Former Metropolitan police chief John Yates, now consulting for the Bahraini police, was not exactly reassuring in his assessment of the situation, “There will be protests over the weekend,” he said. “But we want to make this a sporting event not a security event. I judge it more likely there will be protests on the route and protests around the villages. I just hope it’s a good event and I hope it goes off without too much trouble.”
The security on arrival at the track today was surprisingly sparse, a couple of men in yellow, shirts, no military, no guns. That is sure to change as the weekend goes on. There is so sign on the roads and in the city of any problems, but they can spring up from nowhere. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief on Sunday night if they can get out of here without a major incident.
The drivers aren’t keen to get drawn into discussions about the political side. Some rather naively say that the racing is ‘more important’, others just say that they are ‘here because it’s on’ and leave it at that.
Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg shared their team’s anxiety over the incident on the road last night, Hulkenberg questioning why they should be put in this position,
“It is obviously not right that that sort of stuff happens,” he said. “We are here to race. The F1 business is about entertainment, and these sort of things should not really be happening to us.
“Whether it is right or not I don’t really know. It’s difficult to say. I am not a politician, I am a Formula 1 driver, but it should not really be happening should it? It is not good that we have to worry about it.”
The condition of the hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja could also have a bearing on the events this weekend.
Once the cars start running on Friday a greater sense of normality should descend on the weekend, but it will only take one serious incident for everyone who works in F1 to feel very differently about being here.
The sport is holding its breath.