Ah...Bahrain, hard to leave its problems aside

We approach another Bahrain Grand Prix weekend with focus perhaps off the track as well as on.
Thursday, April 3, 2014

April 3, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- This weekend we have our latest Bahrain Grand Prix. The race's history stretches back to 2004, but as far as the event is concerned the problems started in 2011.

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As part of the Arab Spring civil unrest started in the country early that year, with mass protests calling for political reform and increased heed of human rights. Violence followed, as did death - including that resultant of troops opening gunfire on protests.

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Evidence of brutal repression of the protests and protestors has continued to seep from the Kingdom, including that of prisoners of conscience, of torture and of death in custody, with repeated promises of reform from the regime coming to not very much apparently.

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Given that it has come from the likes of Amnesty International, the US State Department and the UN-backed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (which was set up by the King of Bahrain) it's hard to argue that the evidence has come from fly-by-nights.

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The 2011 race was cancelled (eventually), the next year's though went ahead amid much controversy with matters apparently barely moved on. And last year we had roughly the same again. In neither event has the unrest impacted directly on proceedings (aside from in the PR stakes) though in 2012 there was a close shave involving some of the Force India team.

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Since the last year's visit there has been a WEC round as well as two pre-season tests this year at the Sakhir venue, among other things, which passed without incident, but like it or not a Grand Prix is something else.

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As a consequence in each gathering in Bahrain it has been rather easy to perceive the sport at best as rather greedy (given the vast money on offer to F1 for being there) and uncaring; at worst on the side of oppression.

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Some have argued that other governing regimes of F1 hosts are just as bad, which is true but the matter seems especially acute in Bahrain, as probably in no other Grand Prix does a regime associate itself with the event as closely, and seek to legitimise itself via the kudos of an F1 event as transparently.

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If you missed all of the other evidence of this latter point the 'UniF1ed' slogan to promote the 2012 race really should have removed all doubt. And it rather blew apart the line used in the race's defence that 'sport and politics don't mix'. Probably related to these points the existence of the Grand Prix has been a clear focus for Bahrain's protestors over time.

And the latest charge against the event and the regime that sanctions it is that the apparent calm around proceedings may be no surprise as dissidents in Bahrain as well as a number of human rights groups have claimed that the country is on effective lock-down for the weekend in which the world is watching.

The claims include enclosing villages in barbed wire, excessive siting of police checkpoints and of firing tear gas into residential areas, imprisoning protesters, as well as deporting journalists or denying them access to the country. If this stuff is true then surely whatever remnants that linger of the discredited 'we don't get involved in politics' defence of the race surely are blown away.

If it doesn't seem too callous I now move onto on-track matters. As if to prove once again that F1 exists on fast forward this year marks the tenth anniversary of a Grand Prix that still feels a little like an arriviste on the calendar.

The Bahrain circuit at night during testing.

To mark it for the first time it will be a night race, run under floodlights. It seems an odd decision, given that unlike F1's one other (fully) night race that takes place in Singapore there is not the spectacular city night-scape in the background, nor the vibrant nightlife nor is the later start time particularly more suitable for the mass European TV audience.

The hosts pull out all of the stops to ensure the fraternity feels a warm welcome as well as to assist the event's smooth running (though perhaps too much, as outlined), and they cannot be faulted for ambition; not just with F1 but also for hosting motor sport more generally.

But still the Bahrain Grand Prix has yet to become one to quicken the pulse particularly. The crowd in attendance, sparse at the best of times, dwindled to close to nothing in the post-unrest era - thus further undermining the organisers' 'there's nothing to see here' claims about the local situation.

Some of their claims in response to this - such as that there was plenty of fans there but they were gathered behind the grandstands watching the race on a big screen - were laughable.

Let’s just hope, this year, a different story will be written.

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