I’ve worked in Formula One since the turn of the millennium and never experienced anything like the events surrounding this week’s grand prix.
Before coming out here over a week ago, media speculation, of which there was a lot, had ramped up pressure on teams, officials and decision makers to scrap the event. The response by all of the groups named above was a very similar one. The proverbial ‘hot potato’ that was the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix was passed around with ferocity by all concerned, each claiming to have no authority to change plans.
As someone due to attend the event, I, along with thousands of others, watched and read as the situation, both politically and on the ground, appeared to gain momentum. My family, presumably along with the thousands of others also monitored events with interest.
As the GP came closer I’m pretty sure most people, including myself, were fairly confident that the whole thing would be scrapped or postponed and even made alternate plans for the week. Then all of a sudden, on Friday morning of the Chinese GP, the powers that be emerged from a very brief meeting of team principals to announce that “Everyone was happy to go to Bahrain”.
Knowing who I know and what I know about working in this sport, I can assure you that everyone was not happy to go to Bahrain. Bernie’s line that “nobody has expressed any concerns” was clearly not the case. If my team principal had gone into that meeting and not expressed some concerns, the concerns of the hundreds of people their decision would affect, I think I may have asked why.
The FIA’s decision, as they were the one’s to end up with said ‘hot potato’, was a brave one to say the least. It was them, and ultimately Jean Todt, who were sending us all out here, into what was clearly a far from ‘normal’ sporting environment.
Agree or disagree, we were on our way and whilst I didn’t feel particularly nervous, there was a definite air of anticipation and intrigue to see things for ourselves.
The reality of our experience here, as it always has been, is one of welcoming hospitality and friendliness. If it wasn’t for the influence and unavoidable knowledge we’d gained from different media sources, it would easy to come here, not venture outside the F1 ‘bubble’ and be blissfully unaware of anything other than life as normal.
Because the unavoidable knowledge and influence of the media is just that, unavoidable, I’ve found myself looking for things, evidence of the disturbances I know are going on inside this small country. Of course when you look hard enough, there’s always something to see, but there’s no denying the burning tyres at the roadside, distant rising black smoke and drastically increased police presence, but that’s really the extent of what I’ve seen here.
When Force India’s crew vehicle became tangled up in a roadside petrol bomb incident on Wednesday evening, it was all the evidence needed to back up everyone’s feelings that we shouldn’t be here at all.
Talking to a spread of people across the paddock, opinion seemed split about the reaction or over reaction from the team and it’s members, indeed there was a split opinion inside the team too. Some people in the ‘lot of fuss about nothing’ camp and others understandably feeling like they’d come close enough to the dangers they’d all heard about and seen on tv. The truth is their vehicle wasn’t hit and no one was hurt, however how can anyone ignore that had the Molotov cocktail style missiles been a few meters to the left or right and gone through a window, we’d all have been rapidly on our way home reflecting on a very serious incident indeed.
Other than that near miss, the disturbances and protests, mostly confined to the villages, were contained and kept well away from Formula One and on that level at least, you have to give organisers credit. Security has been taken very seriously as they told us it would and our daily routines haven’t really been any different to any other event we go to.
With Formula One having now left Bahrain, only a handful of journalists and the GP2 paddock remain for a standalone race this weekend at the Bahrain International Circuit. I’m still here too and with the huge numbers of police no longer lining the route to the track each day, or numerous security checkpoints going into the facility itself, there’s no longer anything at all to raise suspicion of any kind of abnormal situation here. The mood’s changed too and while I’ve no doubt that those fighting for their rights and beliefs continue their struggles daily, the world is no longer watching like they were. The idea of a dangerous Bahrain, a place where we all need to stay off the streets for our own safety, was undoubtedly an idea which was escalated by media for media. The people of this island are generally kind and friendly and I can say that from my own experiences of visiting annually for many years. Some have serious issues and they’re prepared to fight for them, but it’s not for us to become embroiled in.
Sunday’s race not only passed without incidents of outside intervention as many had been worried about, but was undoubtedly the best Grand Prix this country has ever held and boy, did they need that.
F1 over the last week or two will have touched people around the world whom it may never normally touch, it featured on almost every major global news channel and not simply in the sporting segments like normal. The image of our sport will have been tarnished to many and to others simply confirmed as being about nothing more than money and greed. There were risks in us coming here, there’s no doubt about that, but they were outweighed by the financial and political implications of us not coming. In the end it looks like Mr E, Todt and the rest got away with it, no one had to break any contracts, no one had to forfeit millions and they all lived happily ever after. The people of this country hosted a great sporting spectacle on track, protesters failed to prevent it going ahead as per their publicised wishes, but instead gained unprecedented coverage the world over for their cause. As for people turning off their tv’s in disgust, that won’t happen either because for all sorts of reasons, we’ve found ourselves caught up in the most exciting and unpredictable season anyone can remember. Most people, if they haven’t already, will forget Bahrain, like Australia, Malaysia and China before it and be looking forward with excitement to the next intriguing installment.