Will Gray

Gray Matter: The Bahrain dilemma

Will Gray

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Formula One has faced pressure from all sides over its decision on racing in Bahrain — but with the event now given the go-ahead what were the key influences and will this be the end to the debate?

Questions over the future of the Bahrain Grand Prix intensified this week, with one UK MP suggesting Bahrain has not shown itself to be working on genuine and sustainable reform while circuit boss Zayed Al Zayani claimed undue alarm has been raised by people who are not truly in the know.

This has been an extremely complex conundrum for Formula One, with safety, human rights, finances and politics all major influences as its various stakeholders tried to decide how deal with the situation.

SAFETY

The primary question for the teams has been safety, both for themselves and also for spectators at the event.

An independent report, controversially quoted by the race organisers, has suggested the circuit itself will be secure and any protests peaceful — ranging from waved banners to tyres being set on fire. The latter, however, is surely not good imagery for F1 to associate with.

That said, in terms of absolute safety, some would argue that there is little difference between potential dangers in Bahrain and those the teams face every year when they visit Brazil, a race which despite the nation's improving situation often sees stories of muggings and attacks on team members and even drivers.

The track may be secure, but it is a long distance from there to the high-rise hotels where the teams make their weekend base in Bahrain, so security en-route will now be vitally important.

HUMAN RIGHTS

The human rights issues are the unique element to this situation and have perhaps been the biggest issue dividing the paddock.

Some human rights experts have claimed that running the race would position the sport as a supporter of the government — suggesting that the only way it could go ahead is if the protestors are suppressed, and in allowing that to happen Formula One is effectively setting out its political stance.

Mark Webber was clear about his views against returning to Bahrain when the teams were discussing an end-of-year race there last season, but even he is staying more on the fence this time, admitting it is hard to understand the true situation by simply following the news.

With such a lot at stake, few have been prepared to make a decision on which way to fall — and most simply settled with the conclusion that the decision was simply out of their hands.

FINANCES AND POLITICS

The situation in Bahrain has hit its economy hard — and the loss of the Grand Prix, which has become a vital event for promoting the Kingdom on a world stage, would have hit hard.

The race itself is not hugely lucrative, as it still generally attracts limited crowds to the remote dusty circuit — but on the flipside it is global showpiece for Bahrain as a tourist and, more importantly, business destination and a significant event for some of the sport's key sponsors.

The Middle East still has the Abu Dhabi race later in the year, but having two races in the region is important to sustain the interest from the global businesses that originate from there. Dropping this year's race could have had long-term consequences, as the Middle East is a vital place for F1's future as it expands beyond its traditional European home.

While most key paddock representatives publicly committed to a common approach, this is business and behind the scenes each will have had their own agenda, with a number of teams having investors or backers from the region keen to push their own views on the situation.

Ultimately, only the FIA could make the call on whether or not to race — and teams have been keen to point out that they are hooked into strict contracts with the sport's commercial rights holder, so there are big hits to take if any choose to pull out of their own accord. If any did so, they would be making a major statement.

In a way, then, the sport would have been saved a difficult decision if safety could not have been guaranteed to an acceptable level.

Ultimately, though, Bahrain has always been a no-win situation for Formula One since the troubles began — and despite claims that the commitment to race will end the discussions, the debate over that decision is only likely to grow stronger.

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