GLOBETROTTER

Riots, rain storms and a baseball field in Iowa

These last few weeks have been a bit of a blur and somehow or other writing columns has been pushed to the back burner. I have a lot of notes dotted around the computer about the adventures along the way but not much more than that. In Bahrain, it says in one note, we managed to get mixed up in a riot one evening as we tried to get back to the hotel. The policemen who placed a cordon in all directions were very polite and all explained that there was "a problem" and that we could not enter the area.

No-one would tell us the problem.

Eventually, I got out of the car and went to talk to a policeman who looked more important than the others and having explained the problem and shown him the press pass, I was whisked away by a man in plain robes who said "Follow me" and proceeded to find a way through the barricades. The policemen saluted and we were through the cordon. When we pulled up outside the hotel we said thank you (like nice polite boys) and asked him what he did for a living. He smiled and sped off into the night in his Toyota Land Cruiser with darkened windows. It was obvious from this that the Bahrain authorities would do pretty much anything to make sure that the international press had positive thoughts about the place. We did ask what the trouble was all about and received a bizarre answer about Sonny and Cher. It's true that not everyone likes their music but having a riot about it seemed a little excessive. It was a few moments before we finally worked out that he had said Sunni and Shia, the two major competing factions within the Muslim faith, who have been arguing with one another (and worse) since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632.

On the day after the Grand Prix, as we sat around in Bahrain, killing time before our flight to Malaysia, we decided to do something that the circuit people have obviously never considered: we took a tour of Bahrain. Away from the rising modern splendours of Manama, which hint at the ambition of the place, we found little to get excited about. There were a couple of old forts dating back to days when this was a place of pearls and pirates but otherwise there was just a lot of sand. Things are moving on rapidly, construction is everywhere but in the older poor areas there were an alarming number of black flags of Islam on display. In the south of the island there is nothing but sand, a few vast and well-guarded estates on the water, where the really really rich live, including Michael Jackson, so they say. And out there somewhere in the sand is a large military airbase which signs encouraged us not to visit.

On the whole the people in Bahrain seem to want the F1 circus to love them and as we flew out on Gulf Air we saw that age old trick that cities with Grands Prix use to make F1 folk feel good. Little chocolate racing cars.

That is always a good sign.

But the question is not really that. The question that needs to be answered is whether or not the expression "If you build it, they will come" is true or not. For those with long memories, the words will bring to mind the 1989 movie called "Field of Dreams" in which an Iowa farmer ploughs up his corn when he hears voices telling him to build a baseball field. It is a dream but the people do come. The film is about the American dream and it has to have a happy ending but in real life this is not always the case.

The problem with Bahrain is that those promoting the event are constantly painting too rosy a picture of the progress being made. There is a lot of potential but Rome was not built in a day. In a few years, perhaps, we will head off to the circuit and not feel like Lawrence of Arabia setting out into the desert. New towns will rise from the sands and people will come.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Building up races involves more than just talking about growth. If they want an audience, they must throw open the gates for everyone and build up an audience. Then as people do come they can edge up ticket prices if that is what they need to do.

Malaysia is a country which has been through this process and today it has the air of a middle-aged athlete who cannot keep up with the fast boys of today and is plodding along surviving. The grandstands are much fuller than they used to be but there is no way the place is making money. The big question with KL is whether F1 can do a sales job on a place that has nothing to commend it to the tourists of the world. People go to Niagara because there is a waterfall, they go to the Grand Canyon because there is a hole in the ground. They go to Paris because it is romantic. Kuala Lumpur is none of these things. It has a pair of very big buildings and lots of cheap shopping, but that is not the Grand Canyon.

The most impressive thing of the Malaysian GP weekend was a rain storm of titanic violence on Thursday evening. There was even a lightning strike near the paddock but those that the Gods had aimed at were not there and were probably back at the hotel, scheming and plotting as they like to do.

After Malaysia it was back on the planes and an endless selection of in-flight movies, duty free shops and lounges in the middle of the night. F1 people do not generally get jet-lag but out in Australia, come four o'clock in the afternoon, you could see the heads drop and the stares move to the middle distance. Those who had stayed out between races dodged this but then they did not see their families for a month. By the time we got to Melbourne people were talking about the need for a different calendar next year and the funny thing was that everyone seemed to be arguing against Melbourne as the first race.

Melbourne is nice at the start of the year but actually it makes more sense as the third race. The teams find the logistics more logical, the Australian press like having a story to tell, and the TV viewing figures tell a story. Formula 1 remains a fundamentally European sport and a race in the middle of the night at the start of the World Championship does not pull in big TV viewing figures. A race in Bahrain, on the other hand, does rate highly and the interesting thing is that there was a knock-on effect this year with high figures in Bahrain being followed by higher viewing figures for Malaysia, even if they fans back in Europe had to stay up a little longer for that. And no doubt the Australian figures will be higher as well because once fans are into the story they want to see the races.

Officially the Australian Grand Prix wants to be the first race of the year but no-one has really explained why this is a good idea.

The perfect calendar, so the paddock surmised, was an out-and-back to Bahrain: two movies and a snooze in each direction. This would be perfect because teams want to do a warm-weather winter test in future years and so their equipment could be sent out in February and left there until the first race.

There would be a seven-day break back home before jetting back to Malaysia and Australia on consecutive weekends.

That way one gets the viewing figures without the jet-lag.

A note worth noting.

Print Feature