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Uneasy sense of calm as F1 settles down to business in Bahrain
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Posted By: James Allen  |  19 Apr 2012   |  4:08 pm GMT  |  129 comments

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.

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1

Oh, how I wish that this weekend signals the end of Bernie’s reign. His arrogant, dismissive and condescending attitude this week is nothing short of offensive. And for all of the teams to fall in line behind him and say nothing about what is right has made me very sad. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to watch F1 again without feeling a sense of anger and disappointment at what has happened, and what will continue to happen, during this Grand Prix.

When I hear the argument that they’re just race drivers and they really don’t have anything to do with politics, I feel that that’s just a cop out. This is a chance for people to stand up for what is right. Instead, hundreds, if not thousands, of people are being arrested and tortured, and possibly killed, just so a race can take place. And drivers and teams continue to bury their heads in the sand and say nothing.

Shame on F1. I have been watching this sport for close to 20 years. But after everything I have seen and read surrounding this race, I think I’m done watching it ever again if they don’t get rid of Bernie Ecclestone. I’m sure he won’t lose any sleep over losing this Canadian girl as a fan, but at least I’ll be able to hold my head up high, knowing that my conscience is clear and my lack of support will no longer put money in that offensive little man’s wallet.

2

Check out this article by F1Fanatic. It’s very good.

http://t.co/HgH78LJC

3

I think Joe Saward summed it up perfectly:

“F1 will come out of the race meeting with the look of an out-of-touch, money-grabbing sport with no discernible morals and no discernible backbone.”

What’s your take James?

4

Did Bernie ever show up? I believe he said he had pressing engagements in London so couldn’t be there? It’d be interesting to see if he does make a showing.

5

Yes, he’s here. So is Jean Todt

6

The Bahrain Police show a lot of restraint, considering what they are faced with every night. I visit Bahrain about twice a month, and my observation is that the silent majority of people do not support the aims of the violent agitators and dissidents. Peaceful demos are allowed, just as in Britain, if the route and location is notified to the Police in advance.

The violence that happens almost every night is in the Shia villages, where illegal gatherings and demos are arranged, and to attack Police Stations. See for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTKEK4phPY0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38TPcdT5Rms

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KTibP7GyDE

7

All, I know is F1 follows the money. They go to tracks that provides… the money. TV goes to the highest bidder….. World politics is irrelevant. Otherwise, you see people donating their salaries to the orphans of Sao Paulo.

So, all the conversation about Bahrain is well meaning and intented. However, it doesn’t really add a lot of value to the man on the streets of Manama does it?

Steve

8

Steve,

Yes, F1 follows the money, but I don’t understand the outrage on this point. You follow the money on the way to work each day.

Someone has to pay for the expensive stage and cast members in our bi-weekly Show. OK, usually, but it really should ALWAYS be bi-weekly.

Bottom line, probably about 2M people go to a GP each year. 100s of millions watch GPs each year. Who’s the target audience? That’s right – TV viewers. So what do you care about where the signal is beamed from?

Have fun with it and drink beer and eat food on the GP weekend based on the country the GP is in and let Bernie look after the rest. This weekend is really a tough one – what’s the tranditional food and drink in Bahrain?

9

True. My point (and not well put) is that any conversation is meaningless about the political situation without backing the words.

With the logic of “following the money” F1 would race in Syria or Myanmar if the money was there….

Do I care about the track location. Yup, I do. Don’t like the new tracks for all the reasons been discussed before.

10

That’s an extreme view. People have used this Syria and North Korea example – but we know this is taking the money point to extreme. That would not happen – even Bernie has his limits.

11

Be it fight for freedom/democracy or whatever, F1 shouldn’t go to dangerous places. Track official said some nice things about the situation on the street level but obviously no-one wants to go thru wot SFI guys have experienced. Between F1 and my life, I’d choose the latter! It was a mistake to go there in the first place, the guy who negotiated the contract is a bit out of touch with reality. Maybe 2006 race was kinda entertaining, still the event never really established itself along with Turkey. A waste of time. Sooner or later all these fabricated new venues will suffer the same fate.

12

James, what area of Bahrain are you staying in and how far is it from the circuit and the airport?

13

Hopefully a safe part! The drive from Manama to track is about 25kms

14

I hope everything goes well this weekend, and that all the headlines will be about great racing, rather than protests, disruptions and chaos. Stay safe James.

15

Piles of money being poured into dirty hands. This is what this is. It’s an ugly reality that shouldn’t be supported. Shame on F1.

16

I wonder what the attendance will be for the weekend, if in the past most of them were locals then we´ll see a lot of empty grandstands.

17

Since they’re there all the best to the F1 entourage and hope for the best that nothing major happens. Hard to fathom that I will be watching without thinking that nothing’s happening and all is fine. Bernie’s been very quiet, hiding perhaps.

18
Stone the crows

James, thanks for the excellent reporting. Just read that Nabeel Rajab, the leader of the government opposition group Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has admitted that the next protests – ‘three days of rage’, are to coincide with the race’s three-day calendar – are aimed specifically at F1. That must be one of the protests Yates was speaking of.

19

What if, God forbid, something tragic occurs over the weekend? Who would take the responsibility? Could that mean, bye, bye to the 2012 F1 season? Who would be proclaimed champion?

20

The issue of the grand prix came up on BBC’s Question Time tonight, so if you have access to the programme you can see that segment which starts about 8 minutes from the end.

21

Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil.

So here we are, Bahrain has arrived and the standoff ended without anyone blinking.

In the context of media coverage, im sure every relevant journalist is just waiting for something dramatic, big to happen. We have all the ingredients for something right here.

The question is, were the 3 monkeys right.

Oh and there is a race going on too. It’s a real shame that after last weeks stonker of a race, we have a race that everyone should be looking forward to, instead being hijacked by people with their own motives/agendas.

22

I follow 3 F1 websites, 4 if we count the usually neutral Beeb, and I would say that the majority sentiment within the F1 community – fans, participants, staff – is against this GP going ahead. I’m guessing that most of us think we are making ourselves hostage to something dreadful happening, like a bomb in the pit lane or stands, or a suicide dash across the track, after which a lot of highly expensive glossy machinery and very well paid drivers might look a bit out of place. And most of us have sympathy for the people of Bahrain, identifying the holding of this race with the ruling elite, and in doing so inadvertently or otherwise making it look like F1 takes political sides.

23

………and that’s the conclusion that any sane individual making a judgement would have reached. Says it all!

24

Offtopic, but James,

Any comment on this article

http://af.reuters.com/article/energyOilNews/idAFL6E8FJ6I020120419

What does this mean for the Mercedes F1 team?

25

It means they’ll either have to get a new partner or pay a lot of money to buy back the shares. But it will be handled at Daimler board level, I’d imagine, rather than gravitate down to the F1 team

26

Maybe that is part of the backdrop to the rumored dissatisfaction of Mercedes with F1. The Mercedes F1 team parent company is suddenly faced with the prospect of stumping up a lot more cash to buy out Aabar or finding investors to buy 40% of the team in a hurry. This was not expected or planned for, and it might be the second issue of its type in the last 3 years, in addition to the infamous “disappearing sponsor” issue at the end of 2009.

27

Back when I was a kid, I’d never have dreamed of watching F1 – I viewed it as a glorified tobacco advert. Now I fear we may be in danger of creating a generation that associates F1 with sleazy, big-money deals with dubious autocrats, while at the same time, we casually abandon the heritage of many of the great European circuits.

The only reason F1 is in Bahrain is because the despotic government has the sport bought and paid for. I don’t suppose old Bernie worries much about the long term damage the sport is suffering for short term financial gain.

28

Not ¨we may be in danger of creating…¨, we have created. It’s alive and well worshiping the mighty $ in Bahrain.

29

There’s a big difference between Bahrain and San Paulo, James. The first is political unrest brought about by a ruling autocracy dumping on a disadvantaged populace; the second (Brazil) is simply crime. It’s important to carry on as normal in the face of the latter, and it’s important to keep a distance from the former.

I’m disappointed that Bernie let F1 be used as a political statement by those with money and power. They shouldn’t have gone.

30

Backfired though so in a sense as long as all personnel get out unharmed its turned into a positive for the people of Bahrain at the government and F1 FIA org cost??

31

Even though I was dissappointed (kind of expected though) that top drivers did not (at least) hint that freedom and safety of humans is more important than money and even F1, I wished Vettel would just shut up and not give his view the situation.

Quoting a recent article from autosport.com:

World champion Sebastian Vettel was one of those who did compare the situation to Brazil.

“I heard about the Force India issue,” he said when asked about his feelings on the event. “I think generally being in the paddock it seems to be no problem. Surely outside the paddock there is a risk, but there is a risk everywhere we go.

“You imagine when we go to Brazil it is not the place you want to be, depending on the area you are in. It is not a big problem and I am happy once we start testing tomorrow because then we worry about stuff that really matters – tyre temperatures, and cars.”

Source: autosport.com

Apparently “tyre temperatures, and cars” is what really matters, not human lives…

I was chocked when I read about his comments on autosport.com. His comments are very ignorant and also disrespectful, not only for the Bahrainis protesting for freedom, but also for Brazilians.

Glad I never was and never will be a fan no matter nr of titels, Vettel!

32

I was front row for that press meeting and yes, the Brazil comment sounded wrong when he said it. I think he knew it too.

As for the “really important things” he was grinning when he said it. He was being ironic but you can’t see irony on a page so easily

33

That’s a serious image hit for Vettel and Red Bull then.

34
matthew cheshire

I hope you are right James. Vettel is going to be around for a long time, and he of all the young drivers needs to be a positive influence.

He actually seems very “switched on” and I don’t believe his comment was meant to be taken on face value either.

35

I don’t think the Brazil comment was wrong in any way as if Jenson Button had not been in an armoured vehicle we would be saying something different right about now.

36

It’s true though, there are some parts that they wouldn’t want to go to in Brazil. Mind you, there are some parts of the UK I don’t want to go to either! Very revealing though about how the drivers feel about all of this.

37

“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…”

It would be much easier to separate sport and politics if the Bahrain government hadn’t already conflated the two; if the circuit wasn’t owned by a member of the ruling family; if Bahrain wasn’t represented on the World Motor Sports Council (which makes the decision about whether the race should take place) by a member of the ruling family.

The Bahrain regime seem to want to have their cake and eat it.

38

“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.”

I guess that’s what you get for 50 million euros…..

39

I have a horrible fealing that if the situation doesn’t deteriorate so much over the next couple of days that the race gets cancelled, the protesters will have something lined up for race day. Despite the security arrangements, these protesters are so committed their cause that they could use the race as a platform for a protest. We’ve already heard reports about the use of Molatov cocktails; hate to think what one of them could do at a race circuit. Not too late to cancel now!

40

Wow – such hysteria over ONE Molotov cocktail. Having lived through 20 years of IRA bombings and several race riots, it really doesn’t sound like there is much that would phase a security force. As long as the police and military personnel are doing their job then the minority of rioters should not be a real threat to the F1 event. The issue really comes from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Surely the teams should co-ordinate things a little better so that you have conveys escorted by security teams when travelling to and from hotels rather than letting individual cars wander around by themselves.

41

If this GP will happen, I hope it will happen without incidents.

But my main worry is that some people might actually jump the fence onto the track durring the GP.

Wish everybody there to be safe.

42

Happens in Europe. Remember the scot at the British GP? How about the Italian track invasions? Are they not a threat to the safety of drivers? Don’t worry, the rioters won’t be able to afford the ticket prices to get anywhere near the track.

43

And that’s the exact problem, so much poverty and an unjustifiable event on the financial scale that it is!

44

As I said before don’t think the race will happen (ref 5 day old comment bring on the next race in Spain) But they are there now anyway so I reckon they will make use of the first 2 practice sessions for obv reasons, and pull out of the qualifying and race with them being the obv more likely target times for any violence/terrorism.

F1 appears to be the “peoples” best political tool the people in Bahrain have on the world stage like it or not. And ironically paid for by there opposition the government!.

F1 in on Wednsday out on Sat Nato troops in on Sunday? What a world we live in!.

45

The people of Bahrain have the right to raise their voice but violence is not the answer.

I just want everyone out there in Bahrain including the teams, media personnel, the marshals, all other staff and the spectators to be safe and enjoy the Grand Prix.

46

Come on Rob. The people of Bahrain did raise their voices — I’m glad you think they have a right to do this — and as a consequence the ruling class used violence on them. So what are the people then supposed to do?

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