Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The right race in the wrong place?

Sebastian Vettel gave this already fascinating Formula 1 world championship another huge twist at the Bahrain Grand Prix with his first victory of the season.

What looked for a while like it might turn into a carbon-copy of so many of the Red Bull driver's wins on his way to the title last year - pole, blitz the start, consolidate lead - turned into a fascinating battle with the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen.

The Finn showed all his old skill and consistency as he climbed from 11th place on the grid to take second place. In so doing, Raikkonen finally delivered on the potential of a car that has looked capable of this sort of result since the start of the season and proved he has lost nothing in his two years away in rallying.

The result, and a nightmare race for McLaren, leaves the championship finely poised going into a three-week break before the Spanish Grand Prix, with Vettel leapfrogging from fifth overall to first and only a handful of points covering all the top five.

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All of this, though, has been completely overshadowed by the situation outside the track, and the controversy over F1's decision to return to Bahrain despite ongoing civil unrest in the Gulf state.

The race has dominated the news agenda over the weekend and, for those involved in the sport, it has not been pretty.

Most people could see the situation F1 has found itself in this weekend coming from miles away, but if the sport's bosses did, they are doing a good job of hiding it.

Last year's Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled following the violent suppression of protests which were part of the Arab Spring that swept across much of the Middle East.

Troubles have continued, despite promises by the ruling royal family to instigate reform following a critical independent report last November, which detailed human rights abuses, including wrongful arrests and torture. Amnesty International says the situation in Bahrain is "not much different" from a year ago.

Yet F1 chose to return, FIA president Jean Todt and commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone believing the claims of the authorities that the situation was much improved and that they could guarantee security.

It did not take long for that last claim to be exposed. Returning from the track on Wednesday evening, down the main highway into the capital Manama, four Force India mechanics were caught between protestors on one side of the road and riot police on the other.

The protestors were throwing petrol bombs at the police, who were responding with tear gas. Petrol bombs flew over the car, and one landed worryingly close.

The whole incident lasted no more than two or three minutes, but it clearly spooked those involved - and the rest of their team, who subsequently chose to skip second practice on Friday so they could return to their hotels before dark. A decision made despite an intervention by Ecclestone.

Most F1 personnel encountered no trouble. But the unrest continued throughout the weekend, and on Friday night a protestor was killed.

Vettel, who had described the controversy over the race as "hype" when he arrived on Thursday, was forced to think again. "It's always dreadful when someone dies," he said after qualifying on pole position.

For all the protestations from Todt and Ecclestone about sport staying apart from politics, the grand prix has become part of the argument in Bahrain.

The protests are not specifically directed at the race, but it is seen as a legitimate target because it is so closely identified with the ruling Sunni royal family, who set it up as a global promotional tool for the country and by extension their regime.

The race organisers - effectively the royal family themselves - have overtly politicised the event by promoting it with posters using the F1 logo in the middle of the slogan "UniF1ed", in a country that is clearly anything but.

Protesters in Bahrain

Protests have targeted Formula 1 both inside Bahrain and across the world. Photo: Getty

Ecclestone's and Todt's responses to this - that they cannot control how people promote their races (Ecclestone) or that the slogan can be interpreted in lots of ways (Todt) - are debatable at best. Some have called it sophistry.

If F1's bosses thought they could go to Bahrain, pick up the huge pay cheque for the race, and get out without any damage to their or the sport's reputation, they have been disabused of that notion in the starkest terms.

On Saturday, Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn - who, behind the scenes, has been one of the senior figures most opposed to holding the Bahrain race - said F1 "with proper judgement of what happened and what we saw needed to come to a conclusion".

I am told by senior insiders that the many of the sport's bosses have been staggered by the extent to which the sport's name has been dragged through the mud this weekend, as well as the focus on it by major global news organisations.

Quite apart from the obvious moral and personal safety issues involved, this is clearly a commercial concern. F1 is selling a dream and an aspiration. But the dream has this weekend become a nightmare - and there has been nothing aspirational about the image the sport has presented to the world.

F1 being what it is, if anything will make them wake up to the potential consequences of racing in Bahrain, that will be it.


Michele Alboreto Jean Alesi Jaime Alguersuari Philippe Alliot Cliff Allison Fernando Alonso

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