I genuinely hope the positive reports emanating from the F1 crowd of a quiet Bahrain are true, and not because the population has been suppressed by local or Saudi or Pakistani security forces. Sadly that is not the picture emerging from at least some sections of the small country.
We’re being told via Twitter that teams and journos alike are seeing little action on the run from Manama to Sakhir and back save for the odd small fire (and obviously that Force India team incident the other day). However you can expect that road to be heavily protected by the authorities, indeed some journalists counted at least 70 police vehicles along the route.
The reports I’ve seen suggest they are mostly in out-of-the-way villages, journalists had to go and find them, which doesn’t make them any less important but it disproves the theory the country is in chaos. That they are taking place at all disproves the alternative theory that everything is just fine and dandy and nothing is going on. Some protests in the last couple of days have got a bit closer and there’s always a danger there will be a concerted effort to reach the track on race day. The flashpoint was always going to come when the cars took to the track, either on the now-traditional Friday ‘Day of Rage’ or on Sunday’s race day, or both. Thankfully Friday didn’t seem as bad as I feared it might’ve been, even with the sad fatality of a protestor (for whatever reason). I honestly expected worse than that.
Not knowing the specifics of the locality, although I’ve been trying to read up on it a lot in the past week (and indeed 12 months ago), I don’t know if these protests show a sample of a much broader picture. The protesters say the vast majority of the populace supports them. The government says the vast majority of the populace supports the race going ahead, though they have yet to claim the majority supports the government. I tend to believe the protestors, I can easily believe more people support them than are willing to says so when the government is tear gassing them and firing rubber bullets, this being the same government which a year ago fired live rounds into a crowd armed only with flags, the same government which attacked a hospital.
If the dispute stays within these factions it would remain an internal matter, a desperately sad one with terrible acts committed by individuals on each side of the divide – the official forces have done some horrific things but the protestors are not as innocent as they may like to portray themselves either, the injuries to police show that. If it is self-defence against unprovoked attacks from forces then fine, I agree, do what you can to defend yourselves. But if not? Unacceptable. Regardless, it is a scenario which others shouldn’t be walking into.
It isn’t the fullscale rioting some media outlets are portraying, but neither is it safe, especially when you have a trigger-happy police and army force around. People who beat people to a pulp just because they’ve been arrested.
As a racing fan, my primary concern is the safety and security of the ‘travelling circus’ of F1, GP2 and Supercup teams, drivers and sports media personnel. Quite honestly, if I were a team owner and any single member of my staff were injured as a result of protest action or government response, no matter how indirectly, whether they were the intended target or not, I would take the FIA, FOM, Todt, Ecclestone and whomever else to the courts. There is no way any of them should be in the country right now.
As a private individual, I genuinely hope the Bahrainis work through their problems and in a peaceful manner. Further discussions should be held to progress reform.
After Tianenman Square China went through a long healing process and a period of opening up to the world, there are still huge problems but they are making progress and I am convinced the Olympics played a big part in that. There is the chance the Grand Prix could do something similar for Bahrain and the government seems to be banking on that – but this is much too early. Bahrain has not had that healing period. Another 12 months should pass before a Grand Prix should be held. Sadly it is too late for that now, this race is going to go ahead. I fear for potential lives lost tomorrow.
The protest movement is already doing well out of this. The government looks weak, foolish and stupid. Sadly, so does F1 and more specifically Bernie Eccelstone, Jean Todt and the FIA. The teams can (just about) get away with saying they are contracted to be there and would lose millions, potentially their entry to the Championship and thus their jobs, they have no choice.
They protestors now have the eyes of the world upon them. Everyone knows their cause. They have been silenced in the world media by Syria and before it Libya. Now they are front and centre on the world stage – this would not have happened without Formula 1. For better, for worse. They will continue to make the rulers of Bahrain look foolish and careless. This despite the best efforts of Bahrain Government to stop independent news reporters visiting the country.
I am glad some of the F1 contingent remembered they are journalists first and foremost and not press release recyclers, and went out to look for the protests themselves. It was a dangerous move. It paid off.
Will I watch the race? Probably. My feeling is if some protest happens during the race I will be more informed if I watch it rather than if I read about it later. I will better be able to form my own opinions and conclusions. I don’t feel comfortable though and I am fully expecting to switch off – or not switch on at all.
I don’t know that I’ll be paying very close attention to tyre strategies and positions through the field. I may be too busy looking at the corners of TV pictures to see if the cameraman/director is trying to crop something out, the way they do at quiet events when they try to avoid showing empty grandstands.
If I do watch I may elect to withold my usual Twitter interaction and opinion unless a protest does take place, or I may make it exclusively about the situation rather than anything in sporting terms. In terms of racing and sport I am honestly more interested in the London Marathon than I am the result of this Bahrain GP. Even if it does take place in the most exciting F1 season we’ve seen in years.