Bahrain Grand Prix 2012: Preview


The Sakhir Circuit, Bahrain, which this weekend will be home of one of the most controversial races in Formula 1 history - Photo Credit: Ferrari
The Sakhir Circuit, Bahrain, which this weekend will be home of one of the most controversial races in Formula 1 history - Photo Credit: Ferrari

 

The indecision finally ended on Friday as the FIA released a statement confirming that the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead as scheduled, and so this weekend the entire F1 community – teams, drivers, media, and possibly even a few fans – will head to the Gulf state preoccupied with troubles far less trivial than a motor race.

In recent weeks, there have been daily reports of protests, an activist on hunger strike in prison, looting and other lawlessness, and bomb attacks in Bahrain, and Amnesty International have talked about a human rights crisis in the country. Citizens protesting against the government and royal family have been dispersed with rubber bullets and tear gas, and a few have even been fatally wounded.

This civil unrest started more than a year ago, shortly after calls for democracy in other nearby countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It was termed the Arab Spring, but in Bahrain there has been a huge stand-off between the ruling elite and the population. Last season this caused the Bahraini government to first postpone and then cancel their grand prix – an event closely tied to the royal family – but this season they have insisted that the race can, and should, go ahead.

Fortunately, from a safety perspective, it is thought that team personnel should not have too much to worry about this weekend, and neither should the majority of travelling fans – most of the 'action', for want of a better word, is taking place outside of the capital Manama, with the government claiming that 95% of the country is safe and welcoming.

What is more, the circuit will be heavily guarded and policed to avoid any disruption to proceedings. Teams have also recruited extra security for the weekend, and as long as fans do not stray into certain no-go areas, they should avoid trouble.

Regardless of the safety issue, many have said that Formula 1 should not be going to Bahrain on moral grounds, because it gives the world the impression that everything is alright in the country; others have argued that, if it will be safe, then the race should go ahead.

These people suggest it will be a distraction for the country and a much needed boost to the economy, especially for the low-paid, like the taxi drivers, restaurant owners, and hotel workers, who were denied an estimated £500 million last year when the race was cancelled.

The overwhelming opinion of people on the outside and looking in – particularly those based in the UK – seems to be that the race should be cancelled. This is evident from comments in newspapers, on Twitter and on blog comments.

But the fact is, F1 will be there. The FIA, Bernie Ecclestone and the race organisers all say the race can go ahead, and the teams and drivers are contractually obliged to be there. A 57 lap motor race is not going to unite a country that is facing a difficult time; it will do very little to stop the violence and the demonstrations, or calm the civil unrest. The only thing people watching can hope for is that the event passes without any off-track incident, nobody gets hurt, and the reputation or standing of Formula 1 is not damaged by association with a regime that faces accusations of grossly mistreating its population.

Unfortunately, much of the race coverage, just like half this preview, will be overshadowed by what is going on in Bahrain, and not what is happening on track. This, on a motorsport level, is a big shame, especially as this weekend's race follows on from a fantastic event in China, where Nico Rosberg picked up his maiden pole and first-ever F1 victory.

There have now been three different winners from three different teams in the first three races of the 2012 season. Although McLaren still seem to have the fastest car (on race day at least), there is no dominant driver emerging in the manner that Sebastian Vettel did last season, and it is incredibly hard to predict the winner of each race.

They say that the first win is always the most difficult, and thus Rosberg would be one of the favourites for victory in Bahrain on Sunday. If he does achieve this, he will match Lewis Hamilton's record for the shortest amount of time (seven days) between a drivers' first and second race victory.

That said, he will have to fight off some tricky competition. For example, we are still yet to see what Schumacher can do with this new Mercedes if he is given a clean run on race day.

Furthermore, Lewis Hamilton is Mr. Consistency so far in 2012. He has three third-place finishes to his name, but will be eager to get his first win on the board this weekend. And don't forget that Jenson Button may have been on course for victory in China last weekend had that McLaren pit stop error not halted his charge. The 2009 champion should find himself with a good opportunity to bag his second win of the season here in the Middle East.

However, McLaren have never actually won in Bahrain before. Ferrari are the most successful constructor, winning the inaugural race with Schumacher in 2004, two with Felipe Massa in 2008 and 2009, and then 2010, the last race held at the Sakhir circuit, with Fernando Alonso. If there is one place, though, where rain isn't going to come to the assistance of the Spaniard on race day, it is probably this desert track, and Ferrari still look unable to challenge for victory in dry conditions.

Of course, the 2010 race will probably be remembered (or more likely completely forgotten) for the fact that it was incredibly processional. It was the first race of that season, and the first where the current ban on mid-race refuelling had become enshrined in the regulations. Both compounds of the Bridgestone tyres were durable so each driver could comfortably get away with making only their one mandatory pit stop, and there was little overtaking action on track.

After that 2010 race, there was a lot of complaining, with fans calling for a knee-jerk re-thinking of the rules. This only lasted until the following race in Australia, though, which was packed full of excitement; the boredom of Bahrain was forgotten.

Fans watching on television this weekend will probably be perfectly happy with a race like that 2010 event provided everything runs smoothly. And then, come Monday morning, Formula 1 can move on from this whole sorry story.