Bahrain Grand Prix 2013: Why the race must go on despite safety fears
Unpredictable Bahrain means financial windfall, but could compromise constructors safety, writes Alex Bysouth
The Kingdom of Bahrain. Sitting relatively unknown off-shore east of Saudi Arabia until 2004, but put on the global sporting map by the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
The race around the Bahrain International Circuit made history as the first ever to be held in the Middle East, but in 2011 was cancelled after peaceful anti-government Arab Spring protests were forcefully quashed.
In 2012, the race controversially went ahead, despite pressure for it to again be abandoned, with the likes of Damon Hill and Mark Webber joining protests backing the retraction of the country’s major sporting event.
So should the FIA, F1’s governing body, really feel at ease staging the fourth of this year’s 19 races on an island with such an unpredictable political climate, potentially putting drivers, constructors and fans at risk?
A year on from the terrible scenes of 2011 the FIA returned the GP to Bahrain, this time sporting a new government slogan, ‘UniF1ed – one nation in celebration’.
Had the Bahraini authorities really overcome the country’s political turmoil and settled the unrest which led to violent protests one-year previous? Or were the government using the race as a ready made propaganda machine to prime a political statement to the watching world?
They obviously did enough to convince F1 chiefs as, interestingly, the Bahrain GP 2013 returns offering a new slogan of hope, ‘imagine your moment’, the chiefs of the Sakhir circuit tell us.
However, on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix and the start of the F1 season, Vodafone have announced an end to their £50m-a-year deal of McLaren with speculation rife they ditched the deal after reviewing the contract on the basis of last year’s Bahrain GP.
The telecommunications company will bring its seven-year sponsorship with the Woking-based constructor to a close at the end of the 2013 season amid rumours they were concerned by the staging of a race in Bahrain and the continued violent uprisings in the Gulf island state.
But Vodafone chief commercial officer Morten Lundal has played down the influence a troubled Bahrain had on their decision.
“We have been very happy with our engagement with McLaren,” he said.
“Our relationship has been a key ingredient in bringing the Vodafone brand to where it is today.
“However, our brand is evolving, and we’ve concluded we will have less of a need for this kind of exposure in future.”
This said, the announcement comes just a month after two people were killed during the second anniversary of the uprising, and where just a few days later hundreds of stone-throwing youths clashed in the streets with police.
Since the protests, police discovered a bomb on a busy causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia and several clashes between opposition groups have broke out across the island in Shia Muslim villages.
So what do the FIA stand to gain from staging the race in Bahrain?
Since New Zealander Bruce McLaren founded the team almost 50 years ago McLaren have become one of the most illustrious names on the grid, boasting drivers such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell.
McLaren are a big player in F1, as is their automotive executive chairman Ron Dennis. Dennis also holds the same title with the McLaren Group, who are 50 per cent owned by Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat.
It is unlikely the Bahrain-based holding company would be too impressed to see their beloved pastime, prestigious corporate package and only claim to sporting global fame removed from the F1 schedule.
The FIA’s calendar lists just 19 races this season, despite the planned introduction of a 20th in New Jersey. The second USA circuit will have to wait until 2014 to be unveiled in a bid to increase the popularity of the sport in a nation preoccupied by Nascar and drag racing.
A six-year broadcasting agreement signed in 2012 means F1 now has to satisfy the needs of both Sky Sports and the BBC, with the promise of a 20th race in the pipeline when the deal was signed, dropping down to just 18 in a season is unlikely to adhere to the contract struck by Formula One Management.
However, perhaps it is just these reasons that prove the race should stay. The race – minus an outrageous attempt from Bahraini businessmen to start a fantasy football dream team league on the island – is the only sporting exposure Bahrain can boast.
If it was not for the GP, the 2011 troubles in Bahrain would not have been highlighted and perhaps not dealt with, however successful this may have been.
The Bahrain GP is as lucrative for sponsors, constructors and broadcasters as any of the races on the calendar. Last year more than 70,000 spectators flocked to the Bahrain International Circuit and this year that number is expected to top 100,000.
But despite being thrust into the sporting spotlight, even since Vodafone’s announcement this week, and with just one month until the controversial Grand Prix gets under way, fears fans’ and drivers’ safety will be compromised is at the forefront of everyone’s mind as the gulf island state yet again descends into domestic terror, with opposition groups violently clashing with police.
Bahrain is unpredictable, but as far as the FIA are concerned, the race must go on.