Formula 1 News

Sakhir Preview: Bracing yourselves

Formula 1 arrives to Bahrain in the middle of political and social protests with the ethics burden that implies. Should the show go on?
Thursday, April 18, 2013

April 18th, 2013 (F1plus/G. Keilloh).- What are the things about F1, on the broadest level, that most get on your nerves? That most exasperate you about the activity and those in it? For me, it is the sport's tendency to put short term (mainly financial) gain way before the negative long-term consequences, as well as its insistence on behaving rather like it thinks it exists inside a bubble, seemingly not considering how it appears more widely and why that is important. And this weekend we'll likely see some of the negative implications played out when both of these manifest themselves simultaneously. Yes, ladies and gentleman, despite everything the F1 circus is returning to Bahrain this weekend.

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This is even though the Bahrain race meeting of last year was one of the most controversial and damaging weekends for F1 in its already not exactly unblemished history. And this year, even though the best evidence is that the situation in Bahrain hasn't changed much in the meantime, it marches back as if nothing has happened, as if nothing has been learned from the experience of 2012. It's like the sport is determined prove George Santayana's celebrated maxim that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'.

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This weekend, just like that in Bahrain 12 months ago, feels rather like something to be got through, both in terms of the security for all involved as well as in terms of F1's image. Despite the undoubted collateral damage to its brand, F1 got away with it last year, particularly in that nothing regrettable happened to the event itself or to anyone who works in or around F1. Going back again into the same situation one year on has a strong feel of pushing ones luck.

Of course, almost none of us who like to talk about F1 specialise in Middle Eastern politics, let alone the specifics of the Bahrain situation. And further we hear vociferous and regular claim and counter claim from both 'sides', making the real story hard to discern. But what we do know is that there has been unrest in Bahrain related to pressure for reform and for democracy, that there has been such unrest since at least early 2011 and that it continues today (indeed, stories emerged of a car bombing this week as well as of the tear-gassing of a school by the Bahraini authorities, in addition to allegations of potential protesters being 'rounded up' for arrest) and has done almost on a daily basis in between times.

We know that the unrest has frequently been violent, and that there have been some brutal repressions of the protests that people have in the past died in. We also know that the F1 race has been and remains a major source of the 'opposition's' discontent. And this is unsurprising given that Bahrain's ruling regime associates itself closely with the F1 race that it bankrolls, and views it as a key means generally of conveying its national branding to the country and to the world, and even has on occasion used it as a means to legitimise itself; the 'UniF1ed' slogan promoting the race last year was thinly-veiled in this regard. And indeed the Bahrain opposition has promised that protests will escalate for the F1 weekend.

Two protester hodling signs against F1 in Bahrain (Hamel Alrayeh / CC)

For F1 to step into this situation, and to do so with the carrot of a (reported) $50 million bounty for showing up, at best makes the sport appear uncaring, greedy and aloof (and playing rather fast and loose with the security of its own fraternity as well as others in Bahrain). At worst it looks as if the sport is siding with oppressors and promoting their legitimacy. Indeed, rather flippant comments made by Bernie Ecclestone and Sebastian Vettel in the course of F1's last visit came perilously close to sounding akin to doing the Bahraini government's bidding (though at least Bernie's making a point of appearing more even handed this year, such as by meeting representatives of the Bahraini opposition).

Of course, we'll no doubt have apologists - among those in F1's higher echelons and elsewhere - emit the inevitable 'we don't do politics/don't mix sport and politics' line. But first of all this is manifestly false: everything is connected to everything else and as mentioned in this case specifically it is clear that the Bahrain regime has used the race in an attempt to legitimise itself. But not only that it is also a cop out. As Ari Vatanen noted on this issue last year 'saying you're not political is an excuse to do nothing...By definition if you hold a sporting event in a politically sensitive place you are involved in politics...Human rights cannot be just ignored as an inconvenience to a sporting event.'

Unfair!' some will shout at this, that the F1 event is being associated with the concurrent civil unrest. Perhaps so, perhaps not. But such an outlook is if nothing else astonishingly naive of how the media works, indeed of how public perception more generally works. And as Gustave Flaubert once noted: 'There is no truth. There is only perception'. And it would seem galling if those operating in a sport as PR and media savvy as F1 expected otherwise.

And even if we park the moral concerns (and why not, F1 has all the tools needed for that task after all) and indulge only in what psychologists call an 'appeal to self interest', the race remains difficult for F1 to justify. As outlined at the start of this article, the sport doesn't exist inside a bubble, especially not when it relies on investors and stakeholders such as sponsors and manufacturers for whom F1 represents but the tiniest decimal point of a single percentage point in its breadth of considerations, who run the risk of tainted by association.

It wouldn't at all surprise me if those who sit in the boardrooms of such organisations during the last Bahrain weekend and this look at the coverage and think 'well I don't need that sort of publicity'. Indeed, rumour has it that one major F1 sponsor at least has been lost on those grounds. And more broadly it appears sponsors have voted with their feet and somewhat shun the Bahrain race. I'd imagine also that many fans, both current and potential, do too.

With all of this it's hard to see how the bounty from turning up to Bahrain outweighs the potential drawbacks, which are less tangible but nevertheless real. This is even considering that Bernie, partly at the behest of CVC, following the money isn't exactly unheard of. But perhaps things aren't that simple? After all McLaren, major players in F1, is 50% owned by the investment arm of the Bahrain government. Perhaps there are also geo-political pressures? Bahrain is an important Middle Eastern ally to the west strategically and otherwise. Has there been pressure on F1 not to rock the boat?

And then of course there is the not inconsiderable matter of security too. The risks here seem very real and indeed it may not even take pre-ordained malice for the worst to happen: peaceful protests in a tense situation can very quickly become non-peaceful, due to the actions either of protesters or authorities. All of us will be relieved if we reach Monday morning with everyone in the F1 fraternity, and in Bahrain more widely, safe. But even if this does happen those who make the decisions in F1 surely will be in no position to crow. They will have got away with it frankly.

The weekend is something to be got through, as I said. But whatever the case it's difficult to see how come Monday F1 will be anything other than diminished, one way or another.

On-track matters
In terms of the Bahrain Grand Prix as a sporting event, it could hardly be a more different challenge from that in China a week before. The temperatures will be hot rather than (relatively) cool. And while the Shanghai track is 'front-limited', i.e. taxing the front tyres more than the rears, when proceeding around the Sakhir track it is the rear of the car that is critical. The circuit is characterised by many heavy braking zones (these plus the temperatures make the track the toughest of the year on brakes) and acceleration zones. Under braking, the rear of the car can become light; under acceleration the rear needs to be stable, and traction slippage can destroy your tyres quickly. And for both exercises keeping your rear tyres in shape is pivotal.

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Sensibly Pirelli has made an 11th hour alteration to the tyre allocations, bringing the medium and hard compounds rather than the soft and hard. The above considerations plus a few high energy corners and an abrasive track surface makes Bahrain among the toughest venues of the year on tyres, and given how long the softs lasted in China one wonders what this weekend's running would have done to them. Pirelli nevertheless predicts three-stop races as the norm on Sunday.

Therefore it may be advantage Red Bull. In Bahrain it gets the more durable tyre compounds that it has been lobbying for audibly for a while, and probably not unrelated the compound selection suits it frankly, given the Bulls' tendency to eat its tyres more rapidly than its rivals do. What also suits it is the Sakhir track layout: we know the Red Bull's strength has been its planted rear end and has been for some time. A pole and win for Sebastian Vettel therefore appears to be the most likely outcome from this weekend, particularly as Mark Webber faces a three-place grid penalty as a result of China misdemeanours.

Seb's closest challenger could well be black and gold however. Last year the Lotus always appeared to go well when temperatures climbed, and indeed at Bahrain in 2012 the two cars came home in second and third, with Kimi Raikkonen hounding Seb for the lead for much of the race. Given the E21's fine handling and famous ability to look after its tyres it, particularly in Kimi's hands, again should be a strong contender.

Ferrari arrives in the afterglow of its fine China triumph, which also was the red team's most decisive race day performance in some time. However, the F138 has looked less stable at the rear than the Red Bull or Lotus at times this year so far, particularly in testing, and thus the Sakhir circuit layout may not be up its street. It's hard to imagine Fernando Alonso won't make the very best of things though, particularly in how he manages his car through a race. Look out for Felipe Massa too, as the Bahrain track is one of those he always seems to go well at.

Mercedes will be a fascinating watch as always. The evidence of the season so far is that it is very close to the race pace but not quite on it yet, though Bahrain's long straights should suit the Mercedes engine's fine top end grunt. Chewing rear tyres was last year's Merc's major vice though, and this weekend should provide a harsh assessment of whether this remains the case in 2013. And as for McLaren, a major upgrade awaits only in Barcelona so this weekend for that team may be something to be got through.

The Sakhir facility in Bahrain (Derek Morrison / CC)

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