Formula One needs to be unified itselfChris Medland April 25, 2012
Formula One's presence in Bahrain dominated column inches on both the front and back pages last week, and even a great grand prix could not qualm the dissenters as the paddock left the island state, taking with it the limelight from the country's issues.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the political situation in Bahrain, for Formula One it's clear that a farce such as the one that occurred last week should never happen again.
So why was the shameful episode allowed to develop in the first place?
In China meetings took place between Bernie Ecclestone and the teams and it was made clear that the race would take place regardless, despite at least one team preferring not to go given the choice. From that point on the sport was always going to lose credibility, but through the poor handling of the whole weekend from a public relations perspective it somehow managed to do even more damage.
The incident that involved four Force India mechanics saw two of its personnel leave Bahrain, and the team even felt the need to skip Friday's second practice session in order to travel back to Manama before nightfall. So at the time it was somewhat confusing when deputy team principal Bob Fernley told the press that the decision to go ahead with the race was the right one.
As it happened, safety was never an issue. As one team member told me: "I feel much safer here than I do in Brazil." It wasn't a case of direct protests at the circuit and teams being in danger, but a moral argument that the sport should not be seen to be endorsing the current ruling regime in Bahrain.
The problem was that the teams could not publicly step out of line; the decision was completely out of their hands. With the current calendar totalling 20 races the regulations allow the teams a degree of input in to the schedule, and in theory they could have vetoed Bahrain. However, as my source put it: "The teams can't agree on anything as a 12 team unit so the chances of them all agreeing something like a race is impossible, in practical terms. In the real world Bernie does a deal, the FIA ratify it and add it to the calendar then the WMSC confirm and announce it".
By appeasing their staff on Friday Force India felt the wrath of FOM by being ignored by the television cameras during qualifying the following day. Openly criticising the decision to race would have had worse consequences. Pulling out altogether? Well that could have cost the team up to $50m in fines and exclusion from the championship.
Teams are now finally unifying, but only to criticise the media's coverage of the build-up to the race. Journalists arrived in Bahrain early and whether protests called for the cancellation of the grand prix or not, they filled their sports pages with news of the growing unrest away from the circuit. This meant that the bulk of the paddock arrived with a heightened sense of trepidation, yet another team source's description of the situation they faced away from the track was simply: "Fine".
Dissent in other Formula One locations goes largely unreported and while coverage of the unrest was inevitable, you could in turn argue that it led Ecclestone to stand solidly beside the Crown Prince as he addressed the media in the paddock. Either way, it meant Formula One was far from unifying the country, just giving both sides a larger megaphone. But that opportunity should not have been offered in the first place as the team member confirmed that their team would "probably not" have gone to Bahrain if it wasn't contractually obliged to "as it was inevitable it would become politicised".
Ross Brawn's sensible and measured analysis that the sport should revisit the decision after the race had taken place points to the first step among the teams to learn from the PR disaster. But in order to prevent a repeat then they are going to have to work together as one and forcefully question some of Ecclestone's calls.
Unfortunately - however successful it was on the track - in the race going ahead the wrong precedent was set.
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1