x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Question marks still remain on the Bahrain Grand Prix

With two weeks to go until the race, there are still doubts over whether the event in Sakhir will take place.

There has been no Formula One action in Sakhir at the Bahrain International Circuit since the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix.
There has been no Formula One action in Sakhir at the Bahrain International Circuit since the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix.

The Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix is scheduled to take place two weeks today and yet the sport's protagonists remain embroiled in an increasingly political dispute more than a year since anti-government protests led to the cancellation of last season's race.

The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) yesterday released a statement conceding they are continually monitoring the situation in the kingdom ahead of the scheduled April 22 event.

The statement came after prominent figures in British motor racing called for world motorsport's Paris-based governing body to reconsider its decision to hold the race.

"The FIA is in daily contact with the highest authorities, the principal European embassies and, of course, the local and international promoters," the statement read. "The FIA is the guarantor of race security and in each country counts on local authorities to guarantee this security. On this point, we have been regularly assured by the highest authorities in Bahrain that all the security challenges are under control."

The Bahrain Grand Prix was removed from the F1 calendar last year after the emergence of a violent uprising in the kingdom.

The cancelled race, which had been due to be the season opener, cost the Bahrain economy an estimated US$500 million (Dh1.8bn). Protests against the nation's rulers have continued throughout the past 14 months.

Authorities in the country maintain the kingdom has returned to normality and that the lucrative F1 race can be used as a means of uniting society. The event's tagline reads: "Unified: One Nation in Celebration".

More than ever, the Bahrain Grand Prix appears to have become a symbol in the struggle between the regime and its opponents.

Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the crown prince, owns the rights to the race, which is held at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, 20 kilometres south of the capital, Manama.

The race, which first took place in 2004 and has been held six times subsequently, is the prized asset in the kingdom's international sports portfolio and is broadcast to around 100 million people in 187 countries.

As the country's government insists the race will go ahead, protesters who demand the race be cancelled have held rallies across the Gulf island and put up anti-Formula One posters around Manama.

Bernie Ecclestone, F1's commercial rights owner, has said the unrest will not affect the race, despite being sent a letter by a protest group threatening to do "everything in our capacity" to ensure the event is a failure.

Damon Hill, the former world champion, visited Bahrain in December with Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, and both men returned home advocating the race's return to the calendar for the 2012 season.

However, earlier this week, Hill called for a rethink.

The Englishman told The Guardian: "What we must put above all else is what will be the penalty in terms of human cost if the race goes ahead?

"Looking at it today you'd have to say that the race could be creating more problems than it's solving."

Hill made clear he is not calling for the race to be cancelled, but rather that the FIA review the situation.

"If we go, we all go, but there is obviously still a great deal of pain, anger and tension in Bahrain," said Hill, who is employed as a race analyst by Sky Sports in England.

"It would be better for F1 to make it clear it properly understands this.

"But there is an even more troubling thought, which is this: is F1 playing brinkmanship for purely financial reasons while people are putting their lives in peril to protest against this event?"

Ecclestone receives a $40m hosting fee each year from the Bahrain race organisers, while for the 12 racing marques the surrounding sponsorship opportunities are reportedly worth up to $44.7m. A recent financial study claimed the Bahrain Grand Prix is more profitable for teams and advertisers than races in Belgium, Italy and Monaco.

The Bahrain government commissioned an independent study last year, which found the kingdom's security forces guilty of using "excessive" force and a "systematic practice of torture".

Richard Burden, a member of parliament in Great Britain who is active on both the Middle East and motorsport, said there is no doubt reforms are being implemented, but agreed with Hill's call for a rethink by the FIA on this year's race happening.

"The inquiry which the Bahrain government set up into the events on its streets last year proved to be more independent than many expected and there is no doubt that there are those among the country's rulers seeking genuine reform," he said.

"It is also true that not all the problems in Bahrain come from one side.

"In a context where genuine and sustainable reform is taking place, holding a grand prix could be a unifying event for the people of Bahrain as well as a positive showcase on the world stage. But things are not at that stage."

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights say on their website that more than 70 people have died since the start of the protests on February 14 last year.

The Bahrain International Circuit held the season-ending round of the Porsche GT3 Middle East Challenge Cup last weekend and Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, the circuit's chief executive, told The National recently that "as far as events at the circuit go, we have actually had a pretty successful and busy end to 2011 and start to 2012".

The president of Bahrain's automobile federation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Isa Al Khalifa, said he expected protests at the event and is "happy" for people to do so as long as they remain peaceful and orderly.

He added, however, that no extra security will be provided for teams and drivers, who have proved more vocal this year than they did last season on whether or not they should go to Bahrain.

In 2011, when drivers were asked for their views regarding a possible cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix, all remained tight-lipped with the exception of Australian Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver, who was later discreetly summoned for a chat with Ecclestone.

This year, the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who won the first Bahrain Grand Prix, and Sebastian Vettel, the double world champion, said they were looking forward to racing there when the subject was brought up at the Malaysian Grand Prix last month. Jenson Button, the McLaren-Mercedes driver, said the decision was not his to ponder.

"For us, this is a very difficult subject and, personally, from my point of view, we need to look to the FIA - for all of us - for common sense," said Button, who won the 2009 race in Bahrain on his way to claiming the world championship.

"We will go with what they have to say."

Yesterday's statement from the sport's governing body suggests that, with only two weeks remaining, their viewpoint has not changed and that the race will go ahead as scheduled so long as the local authorities continue to guarantee security.

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