x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Sounds of silence from drivers in Shanghai

Chinese Formula One Grand Prix remains overshadowed by events surrounding next week's scheduled stage in Bahrain.

Sauber’s Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso did not have much to say about next week’s race in Bahrain during yesterday’s media conference in Shanghai.
Sauber’s Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso did not have much to say about next week’s race in Bahrain during yesterday’s media conference in Shanghai.

SHANGHAI // On an afternoon when the majority of the Formula One fraternity refused to discuss the staging of next week's Bahrain Grand Prix, Mark Webber, much like he did last year, was alone in speaking candidly and at length about a complicated and controversial issue.

The Shanghai International Circuit may be where the action is ahead of Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix, but there is no doubting the F1 focus is 6,800km away in Sakhir.

Yesterday, almost all the sport's drivers acknowledged that the ongoing anti-government protests in Bahrain is an issue that needs to be discussed and yet few proved willing to provide their opinion, instead opting to deflect inquiries to their teams, race organisers and the governing body for world motorsport, the FIA.

In the official pre-race news conference, six drivers - Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov, Paul di Resta, Sergio Perez, Fernando Alonso and Narain Karthikeyan - were asked whether they acknowledged they might have a moral difficulty in going to Bahrain next week. All six men remained tight-lipped.

In a separate session, Pastor Maldonado, the Venezuelan driver with Williams, was asked for his thoughts. "It's difficult to say, very difficult to say," he replied. "Talking in the paddock, nobody knows. It's difficult. From the beginning of the season, it has been on the calendar, but it is difficult to say, to be honest."

Heikki Kovalainen, Caterham's Finnish driver and golf enthusiast, said he was offered the opportunity to play at the Bahrain Invitational pro-am, which begins today and features the likes of European Tour players Colin Montgomerie, Paul Casey and Thomas Bjorn.

Kovalainen said he would have attended had he not had race commitments, but when asked whether he is at ease visiting the Gulf state next week, he closed up. "I don't want to get into that," he said. "A golf event is a separate thing. I don't want to get into that at all. Let's not go there. Whatever the team decides, I will do that."

Nico Hulkenberg, of Force India, said: "I'm a driver, I don't think about this stuff. I just want to drive."

Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel said: "No Bahrain questions; there are so many people in the paddock; ask them."

The conduct of Vettel, the reigning world champion, could not have contrasted more to that of his teammate, Webber.

Last year, the Australian was the only driver to speak out before the crown prince of Bahrain took the decision to cancel the race. Yesterday, taking his seat in front of a scrum of media, Webber smiled, leaned forward and said: "So, Bahrain …?"

He then proceeded to speak, with caution, about the several issues at play, admitting he has misgivings about racing in the kingdom, insisting he trusts the decision-makers and adding that cancelling the race is not as difficult as is often portrayed.

"Clearly, there are some massive decisions to be made," Webber said. "If we have a choice … I want to race, and I'd like to go there and do that, but you cannot ignore the fact that there are a lot of good people in our sport and all of them have in the back of their minds that we want it to go down smoothly and we don't want to be involved with the situation that's out there."

Webber said he follows the news on television and, courtesy of the social networking website Twitter, is provided constant reminders that there are two sides to the issue. "There's no beating about the bush: it is sensitive out there," he said. "Obviously, we are putting an immense amount of trust [in the FIA] going to and from that track each day, competing at that track and having a normal grand prix weekend. That is what we would all love to see."

Teams are due to fly equipment to Bahrain on Sunday evening, with the staffs of many teams flying to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar the following day. It is understood several England-based teams have already booked onward flights to the UK in the event the Gulf race is cancelled. If the race weekend goes ahead as scheduled, drivers would be expected to be at Bahrain International Circuit on Thursday.

How the Bahrain race can still be in doubt at such a late stage is "bizarre", said Hulkenberg, and Webber said it has given the FIA, who are expected to make an announcement tomorrow, an even more difficult decision.

"Ultimately, it is a car race," Webber said. "There are a hell of a lot of people in the world who don't have a clue there is a grand prix in Bahrain next weekend, so let's not get too wrapped up in our own bubble about how important it is. Things can get called off in a flash. But in January to here, what has happened to make that decision harder?

"Obviously, the date has got nearer and you get more nervous; it is more topical. There is a lot more pressure involved in the decision-making process …"

Webber noted that Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 commercial rights owner, as well as the teams have said the Bahrain decision is the FIA's to make.

Jean Todt, the FIA president is due to arrive in Shanghai tomorrow.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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