[Updated] In the paddock at Shanghai today the talk is all on one subject: the Bahrain Grand Prix and whether it will take place next week. Although an emerging protest into the Mercedes front wing looks like it will soon take some of the spotlight off the politics.
The Bahrain situation is now acquiring an acute feel to it, with many team members and media due to fly from Shanghai to Bahrain in little over 72 hours time. The teams are clearly very concerned about the event and looking to the FIA for leadership.
FIA president Jean Todt will arrive in Shanghai on Friday night and will come into the circuit on Saturday, while Bernie Ecclestone arrived today and will meet with the 12 teams at lunchtime on Friday. Ecclestone told Reuters this afternoon that the race is on, unless the Bahrainis themselves decide to call it off.
Although he has said nothing on the matter in public, Todt has today issued a letter from former Metropolitan Police chief John Yates, who was heading the security operation at the London 2012 Olympics and is now on a short term contract with the Bahraini Government on a security brief, following the BICI enquiry into last year’s uprising. The letter is intended to show that the FIA’s assessment is that it will be safe for F1 to race in Bahrain next week.
Yates, who has been living in Bahrain since January, says that the situation on the ground in Bahrain is not as is being portrayed in the media and that trouble consists of a few small protests involving youths and that there is no security risk to F1 teams and personnel. What he calls “the real picture of life in Bahrain” is being distorted by the opposition messaging and this is leading to an inaccurate picture being portrayed in the media and to the teams. A report by Lotus following a recce last week also found the situation relatively normal, but the teams’ fear is that once the F1 circus sets up at Sakhir, things could quickly escalate.
Yates’s letter says the protests are from a “very small minority – often groups of 15-20 young men. These are criminal acts being perpetrated against an unarmed police force who, in the face of such attacks, are acting with remarkable restraint.
“These people are intent on causing harm to the police and the communities in which they live. They are not representative of the vast majority of delightful, law-abiding citizens that represent the real Bahrain that I see every day. Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London.”
Yates is a credible figure to a point, he is after all being employed by the Interior Ministry; he was forced to resign from the police over the way he conducted the investigation into the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World. Yet despite his intervention and the British Government’s ongoing advice that travel to Bahrain is not restricted, the teams’ own risk assessments indicate that there are potential risks from isolated incidents and even a kidnap risk. They are also concerned about protestors getting hurt whilst making their voices heard against F1’s presence in the country, as everyone feels is inevitable.
So far however, there has been no focal point for calls to abandon the race, rather a general fear and unease. However a statement from the US Government on Wednesday may provide the start of such a rallying point. White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “The United States continues to be deeply concerned about the situation in Bahrain, and we urge all parties to reject violence in all its forms.
“We condemn the violence directed against police and government institutions, including recent incidents that have resulted in serious injuries to police officers.
“We also call on the police to exercise maximum restraint, and condemn the use of excessive force and indiscriminate use of tear gas against protesters, which has resulted in civilian casualties.”