Today at a lunch at the RAC Club in London the organisers of the Bahrain Grand Prix met with Bernie Ecclestone, several leading F1 team principals and journalists to discuss the forthcoming Bahrain Grand Prix.
The message from Bahrain and from the F1 teams was clear: the race is on, despite continuing flare ups of protest in the country and rumours of impending cancellation which have surfaced from time to time during the first two Grands Prix of the season. Many of the people who work in the sport have privately expressed concern about the race taking place.
The Bahrainis however believe that the country is on the road to change and that “the Grand Prix has the power and the potential to be a force for good” meanwhile Ecclestone says he is happy for the sport to be used to play a supportive role in that message.
Among those representing Bahrain were Shaikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa of the ruling family and Zayed al Zayani, who is responsible for the race. F1 was represented by Ecclestone, Sir Frank Williams, McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, Red Bull boss Christian Horner, Mercedes AMG CEO Nick Fry, Pirelli motorsport boss Paul Hembery as well as the FIA’s Communications Director Norman Howell.
The Grand Prix had to be cancelled last year last year after an outbreak of violent protest in February 2011 which led to many deaths and thousands of arrests. 29 largely Shia staff were laid off by the circuit, 25 of whom have since returned to their work, according to Zayed.
A commission of enquiry report issued last November found evidence of human rights abuses and police brutality in dealing with the protests.
The Grand Prix is due to take place in three weeks, following the Chinese Grand Prix and the Baharinis wanted to get the message across today that the security situation is back to normal and that teams, media and fans can be reassured that the event will pass safely and that despite reports of continuing outbreaks of violence, there will be no need for additional security.
“It (the race) will take place and I’m sure it’ll happen without any problems,” Ecclestone told me. “I don’t need any personal security but I’m sure whatever is necessary will be looked after. People that are trying to demonstrate are going to use anything to do with F1. If they did it would be silly because it shows to the rest of the world.
As for whether he is comfortable for F1 to be used as a “force for good” and an symbol of reconciliation, Ecclestone said, “We’d be happy to do whatever. I don’t see that we can help much but we’re there, we have confidence in Bahrain. The good thing about Bahrain is that it’s more democratic than most places. The people there are allowed to speak what they want and they can protest what they want to.”
“F1 is a sport at the end of the day and we’ve always enjoyed racing in Bahrain,” said Christian Horner. “It’s on the calendar and the FIA and promoters deem it right to hold a race in Bahrain so we will be happy to be there and race.
“We’ve had assurances from the FIA that they are happy (about security arrangements). When you enter the championship, you enter to compete in all the races and we’ll look forward to racing in Bahrain.”
Shaikh Salman and Zayed al Zayani both underlined the economic importance of the event to Bahrain. They said that economic analysts put the economic benefit of the race at $220 million annually to the country and its cancellation last year, they said, had a significant impact on local businesses.
“We’re very excited,” said Shaikh Salman, the CEO of the circuit. “The Grand Prix ties us to the world. Bahrain is such a small country and we get a chance to play on a global scale. And that small country really punches above its weight during that time. As Bahrainis that’s what makes us proud. The Grand Prix plays a huge part in Bahrain, the economic impact everyone benefits from, the taxi drivers, hotels and so on.
“The Grand Prix is a huge event and security measures are part of that. We’ve shown them what we’ve done every year and it hasn’t changed that much.
“We have moved on from what happened and the unfortunate incidents of last year. The Grand Prix coming back says that.”
* You can hear more on this story on the JA on F1 podcast, which will be live on Soundcloud and Itunes later this evening.