Posts Tagged ‘sakhir’

Sadly, this week’s build-up to the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai is dominated instead by talk of an altogether different race: the F1 GP of Bahrain scheduled to take place the following week. But will it actually happen?

Bahrain dropped off the calendar at short notice in 2011 after the outbreak of civil unrest left teams feeling unsafe in the country and the UK government advising against non-essential visits which in turn made key factors like insurance coverage for the teams, staff and equipment a serious problem. In the end the Bahraini organisers themselves were put in the position of requesting a postponement that eventually became an outright cancellation.

Will the same happen in 2012?

There certainly seems to be pressure building behind the scenes with more and more F1 personalities such as former world champion Damon Hill speaking out against holding the Bahrain Grand Prix while unrest is still a serious problem in the country. Many fans have also been vocal about holding the race under these circumstances, saying that it’s immoral for F1 to hold the race in these circumstances, that the sport has to show an ethical backbone and cannot just remain silent about the suppression of opposition in the country.

While team managers are not speaking out publicly, they’ve been anonymously reported in the press as being very against holding the race in a country where the presence of the support could be perceived as support for the ruling royal family and therefore opposed by protesters. According to the media reports, teams have issued their staff with two sets of tickets out of China for this weekend: one going to Bahrain, and the other routing home via Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Oman in the event of cancellation.

To be honest, I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the prospect of going to Bahrain and the whole thing going disastrously wrong. If something does happen then it could be the defining moment for the sport of our age. But I’m not really sure that there’s any real choice.

First of all, the ‘moral’ aspect, that F1 shouldn’t go to a country suppressing its population. This really does require F1 to take an ethical standpoint on the situation, and what expertise and standing does a motorsport competition have to do that? If the UK government labelled the country immoral, unethical or evil then that would be another thing, but it’s not for Bernie Ecclestone, Jean Todt or the rest of the F1 scene to hand down judgements on countries recognised internationally and still regarded as legitimate trade partners by the UK and everywhere else.

If we’re expected to take this stand because of the suppression of opposition and the lack of legitimate democracy in the country, then surely there should be even more qualms about this weekend’s race in China? And if we don’t want the sport to go anywhere where it’s not going to be fulsomely welcomed by all the local population, then how can we justify going to a highly split Circuit of the Americas in Austin, in a country that as a whole is at the very best profoundly indifferent to whether F1 ever again turns a wheel in the US?

What about the operational angle? The Grand Prix is a sitting duck for protests, meaning that the Bahrain government will have to ramp up security to an extreme degree or face the appalling prospect of someone breaking into the facility to stage a suicidal protest of a terrorist attack. In many ways this is the most terrifying, dreadful prospect facing F1 in ten days’ time. But if cast-iron security was really a must-have for sporting events, then we certainly wouldn’t be holding the Olympics in the UK in 2012. Just this weekend we saw the chaos that a single person was able to cause to the Boat Race, and there have been security breaches at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in years past. Does that mean the UK should be struck off the calendar because it can’t assure the safety of drivers? What about Brazil, with its notorious crime around the São Paulo area that has seen team personnel and even drivers robbed and car-jacked in recent years on their way to and from the circuit – should we say adiós to Interlagos?

And then – perhaps more importantly in the circumstances – is the business side. The Bahrain government has invested huge sums into the Sakhir International Circuit, all based on the contract that assured them the Grand Prix races to recoup their money from. If F1 cancels out of the races, then who is going to pay for the ticket sale refunds and pick up the rest of the tab for the original construction? Bahrain certainly won’t want to and it would be amazing if their arrangement with the FIA didn’t give them recourse to sue F1 for breach of contract. Are team bosses and the FIA really happy to pay up tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds? What about other motor racing events scheduled for the year such as the GP2 support race and the FIA World Endurance Championship? And how are the fans going to react when it emerges that the FIA is handing over huge sums to the Bahrain government for the cancellation, which will merely help it fund its current suppression activities in return for nothing in exchange except our own self-righteous sense of moral superiority?

It’s for all these arguments that I still find it hard to really believe that the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain will be postponed or cancelled, despite the building pressure from within and also externally from the media and politicians. Unless something happens in the meantime to turn a chronic unrest situation into an acute crisis, there simply isn’t the one overriding factor to stop the event from proceeding. Last year that acute factor was the breaking out of mass protests, including occupation of the area around the hotel where many F1 and GP2 teams were staying, and the Bahraini army action taken against the encampment that left teams with little choice except to catch the first flight out. It even meant the Bahrain authorities had to back down and forced into requesting the cancellation, which left them holding the financial fall-out as well. But this year so far at least there is no such clear and immediate danger on which to base the decision, which makes it a lot more difficult to work out the right thing to do.

If nothing else emerges in Bahrain in the next few days, the momentum and inertia of carrying on with the original plan will tend to win out over the effort of changing course. Much as I can’t say I’m personally happy with that decision or with the situation as a whole, to be honest, it’s the reality as things stand.

Lest anyone think that I’m an amoral apologist for foreign regimes, let me just wrap up this piece with one final comment. Rather than be placed in such ethical and business dilemmas in the future, how about the FIA and FOM simply look properly before they draft up any new contracts in future, and evaluate what they’re leaping into before getting dazzled by the dollar signs on the cheques being waved under their noses? We’ve seen money win out over holding the race at much-loved venues in France, Germany and Italy; even the incomparable Spa-Francorchamps is threatened with relegation to bi-annual status in order to clear the way for F1 heading to Russia in the near future, which says it all about the governing bodies’ priorities at the moment. I for one would be very happy never to have such a crisis situation ever again in what – for all its inevitable business aspects – is really still supposed to be a sport at heart.

Yes, that’s a hollow laugh you hear as I sign off.

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Has there ever been a season start more keenly awaited than this one? With so many changes, expectations were high: new teams, new drivers, new points system, new track layout, no refuelling, Schumacher back. It seemed almost literally anything could happen.

And what happened … felt very much like business as usual. Which felt very odd at the same time that it felt normal, and certainly seemed anticlimactic especially when compared with the astounding events that kicked off the 2009 season and set the sport on its head.

Of course, if you’re a Ferrari or a Fernando Alonso fan, you’ll view today’s events with the same dizzying sense of ecstasy that Brawn/Button fans experienced twelve months ago. Certainly the result – and the relative ease of Ferrari’s eventual triumph – very much endorses Maranello’s decision to call time on the 2009 season very early on and turn its attentions to 2010 development. It should send chills down the spines of its rivals, too, who have to wonder whether anyone will have a chance of stemming a red tide.

Red Bull (in the shape of Sebastian Vettel) were the only threat to Alonso and Felipe Massa today. He converted pole to an impressive lead and pulled away with seeming ease, at one stage putting a full second a lap on second placed Alonso. But Vettel’s performance was bookended by team mate Mark Webber’s experience, and he was having a more problematic day.

To start with, his engine belched smoke in the manner of James Bond’s Aston Martin smokescreen gadget as Webber went through the first turn. The smoke unsighted the cars behind which led to a clash between Robert Kubica’s Renault and the two Force India cars. Kubica and Adrian Sutil ended up spinning and falling back to the rear of the pack, while Webber was able to carry on with no further ill effects but the momentary loss of power at the critical corner cost him positions that he was never able to recover, and he would labour in traffic for the rest of the afternoon unable to show whether Vettel’s display upfront was a one-off down to the driver, or the true pace of the Red Bull.

That first corner also saw Alonso sneak past Massa for second place behind Vettel, and Alonso was clearly the stronger of the two Ferraris while Nico Rosberg got past Lewis Hamilton for 4th place, which was to hold up the McLaren for much of first stage of the race until the round of pit stops enabled Hamilton to get the position back when Rosberg had to be held in his pit box briefly because of incoming traffic (ironically, Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button coming in) on his own pit stop next time around on lap 17.

After that, for a time things rather settled down into a routine that would not have been out of place in any season in the last two decades. None of the rule changes really seemed to have tackled the fundamental problem of the sport: that overtaking is absent. No one can get close enough to try, and so everyone ends up playing safe. Removing refuelling (which was meant to remove the “let’s wait till the pit stops” thinking) does nothing to tackle that problem; indeed, it removed one of the most interesting, intriguing and surprising aspects of years past and added nothing in return.

Although mandatory pit stops per se are not part of the rules, the need to run both prime and option tyres during the race imposes at least one stop. Unfortunately, the option tyres had such short life on the superheated tarmac of Sakhir that everyone got them over and done with as soon as possible, and then hunkered down for the remaining 30 or so laps nursing their rubber like a drunk with their beer.

As the race wore on (and the tyres wore down), things did perk up as everyone started to develop some technical problems or other. unsurprisingly the new teams were the worst hit, with Karun Chandhok crashing on the second lap (unsurprisingly given his total lack of practice time) and his Hispania team mate Bruno Senna, Virgin’s Timo Glock and Luca Di Grassi, and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de la Rosa all retiring from assorted hydraulic and gearbox problems before the end, along with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov who retired in the pits with suspension damage.

Sebastien Buemi also ground to a halt before the end, as did Jarno Trulli who had been suffering hydraulic problems for much of the latter part of the race, but both were close enough to the finish to be classified 16th and 17th respectively. With Jarno’s team mate Heikki Kovalainen making it to the finish (albeit a lap down) it means that Lotus alone of all the new teams managed to get both cars to the end, a significant achievement for such a hastily thrown-together outfit.

Nor were the long-standing big teams immune from problems. Both McLaren drivers were told to take care of overheating brakes, while Ferrari fretted about their engines overheating in dirty air and eating up precious fuel at an accelerated rate, a major concern especially as the team had already been forced into replacing both cars’ engines overnight – without penalty, but still a major worry to be on your second engine on the first race of the year when you only have eight in total to see out the 19-race season.

But up front, nothing seemed to be troubling Sebastian Vettel. Nothing, that is, until lap 34, when suddenly the engine developed a very sour note that was painfully obvious to everyone within earshot: a spark plug had failed him. That put the engine down on power, which was painfully obvious as both Ferraris rapidly chased him down and them breezed past him as if standing still. A few moments later and Lewis Hamilton showed up and repeated the feat, leaving Vettel to wonder who else would stream past him.

In fact, the early gap that the leaders had stretched out kept him safe until the last three laps, and when Nico Rosberg did finally arrive on his tail he was strangely unable to repeat the feats of his peers, and Vettel was able to keep him behind relatively easily until the chequered flag. Vettel might have been ruing the loss of a famous victory, but he may also have cause to celebrate the damage limitation that still secured him a valuable 12pts in the new F1 scoring system.

Once in the lead, Alonso nailed some impressive laps to put his seal on the race, leaving Massa far behind – although Massa wasn’t putting up a fight and just looking after his engine and tyres in what was by any reckoning an impressive and stirring return to form after being sidelined for eight months by the horrific accident in the middle of the 2009 season.

Behind Hamilton, Vettel and Rosberg, a strangely anonymous Michael Schumacher circulated with no perceptible impact as he tried to get used to all the new rules since his heyday, ahead of world champion Jenson Button who was busy fending off a frustrated Mark Webber. Vitantonio Liuzzi held up Force India’s honour by coming ninth after Sutil’s first lap spin put him out of contention. Even so, Sutil recovered to 12th place right behind the man with whom he’d clashed, Kubica: it’s a shame that both men received zero reward for such impressive fightbacks.

Rubens Barrichello ended in the last points-paying position in tenth, while his rookie team mate Nico Hulkenberg had a good day but was undone by his Williams getting a “tank slapper” on lap 3 in the fast downhill section of the track causing him to spin out and need to slink back to the pits for new tyres well out of sequence.

But at the end of the day, everyone was left wondering where all the changes had left them, and whether it was all for the better or worse. “It’s the start and then after it is just sort of go your pace and not do mistakes,” was veteran Michael Schumacher’s take. “Overtaking is basically impossible, other than if somebody makes a mistake,” he added. “”That’s the action we are going to have with unfortunately this kind of environment of race strategy.”

Even so, the seven times world champion declared his return to the sport to have been “great fun”. And while it didn’t have the emotional high of Australia 2009, Bahrain 2010 certainly did an accomplished job in kicking off the new season and we can but hope that the new rules – as well as all the struggling new teams – will bed in quickly to produce a vintage year of Formula 1.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Alonso        Ferrari                    1h39:20.396
 2.  Massa         Ferrari                    +    16.099
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +    23.182
 4.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +    38.713
 5.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +    40.263
 6.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +    44.180
 7.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +    45.260
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    46.308
 9.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes       +    53.089
10.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +  1:02.400
11.  Kubica        Renault                    +  1:09.093
12.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +  1:22.958
13.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +  1:32.656
14.  Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
15.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth             +     1 lap
16.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +    3 laps
17.  Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth             +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:58.287

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               30
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 18
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              17
Petrov        Renault                      14
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               12
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              3
Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth                 2

Championship standings after round 1

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Alonso        25        1.  Ferrari                    43
 2.  Massa         18        2.  McLaren-Mercedes           21
 3.  Hamilton      15        3.  Mercedes                   18
 4.  Vettel        12        4.  Red Bull-Renault           16
 5.  Rosberg       10        5.  Force India-Mercedes        2
 6.  Schumacher     8        6.  Williams-Cosworth           1
 7.  Button         6       
 8.  Webber         4       
 9.  Liuzzi         2       
10.  Barrichello    1       




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