Those in the know
FEBRUARY 23, 2011
The postponement of the Bahrain Grand Prix has ended a raft of rubbish from writers who ought to know better.
The tiny island state in the Gulf region had always seemed peaceful enough but the overthrow of dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened the majority of Bahrain's population and exposed a strength of feeling that, you suspect, caught the ruling family by surprise. From the moment protesters were subsequently and brutally swept aside, the future of this nation, never mind something as irrelevant as a motor race, was in doubt.
The problem for some observers seemed to be deciding just who should make the decision about whether or not the opening round of the F1 World Championship should go ahead on 14 March. 'The Times' of London and one or two websites made loud noises about the absence of leadership and decision-making by F1's authorities; namely Bernie Ecclestone (head of Formula One Management) and Jean Todt, (president of the FIA).
In the light of the shocking deaths due to gratuitous violence by what appeared to be agents of the government, the feeling was that F1 should pull out immediately. While that is an understandable knee-jerk reaction to such horror, it confers a duty of judgement which the FIA and FOM have no right to exercise.
By making a decision right then, motor sport would have been taking sides in a political debate which they know no more about than the detail you and I were able to read on the internet. Even if every piece of logical thinking produced an abhorrence of what we were seeing, none of us - Ecclestone and Todt included - were on the ground in Bahrain and in a position to appreciate the complete picture.
The decision had to be made by those who were there and understood the full implications. It was not, as some writers cynically declared, a pathetic display as F1 sat on the fence. Ecclestone and Todt had no choice until such time as their Bahraini hosts offered an opinion. There was no way F1 could effectively tell the Crown Prince how to run his country, although it will have been made clear that the sport had no wish to be used for propaganda purposes. If the host nation decreed that the race should go ahead, only then could F1 make a measured decision about the sense and security of making such a trip.
That said, it is true that Ecclestone and Todt were caught in difficult situations of their own making. By going to places where a lack of motor sport fervour and heritage is in inverse proportion to the millions of dollars given to F1 in order to gain international credibility, the sport's unspoken role as a fig leaf is always likely to become uncomfortable when a nation's private parts are exposed. It is a price which has to be paid.
On which subject, Ecclestone has vigorously refuted the suggestion that waiting for the Bahrain organisers to pull out (rather than the other way round) allowed Ecclestone to insist on full payment because Bahrain had broken the contract. It's a case of no race, no fee.
Todt, meanwhile, must have shifted uneasily in his presidential chair when he recalled that Sheikh Abdullah Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, president of the Bahrain Motor Federation, helped sway important votes in the Middle East during Todt's election campaign.
The decision to postpone was undoubtedly the right one and, in my case, a happy one for other reasons. I was reminded of this when doing an interview for BBC Radio. The presenter, having clearly done his research, suggested I would not be losing any sleep over Bahrain's absence by quoting my views on the place after attending the first Grand Prix in 2004.
The Sakhir circuit may possess high class facilities for the teams but the paddock resembles an immaculate commercial park without atmosphere or soul. The track itself, apart from a tricky downhill approach to a tight left-hander, is made to seem even more bland than it already is by a complete absence of spectators or structures everywhere but on the main straight. Turkey may have a similar dearth of race fans and history but at least the track makes for outstanding racing and viewing. Bahrain has little to recommend it.
But personal likes and dislikes should have had no more bearing on a vote to postpone F1's visit than Ecclestone and Todt reacting to the media. Best to ignore strident voices seeking a quick and cheap headline and leave it to those in the know.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.