The Situation With Bahrain

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.

Positive Thinking

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.

 

2012 FIA WEC Preview

This year’s endurance racing calendar is something special, for the first time in 20 years we have a world championship for long-distance sportscar racing and it promises to develop into something big over the coming years.

It is a shame that one of the main instigators of the FIA World Endurance Championship, Peugeot, was forced to withdraw before the season. Audi vs Peugeot would’ve been even more fraught than we’ve seen in the past with a world title on the line! Toyota had already planned to join midseason. They, the FIA and the ACO should be applauded for working to have then enter more races than was originally planned and for adjusting the points system to allow dropped scores, so the LMP1 championship is mathematically still on the line even if Audi will surely win it comfortably.

Calendar

The centrepiece is of course Le Mans, with a calendar featuring some of the best events of the international endurance racing calendar of the past few years, added to new events in Brazil, Japan and controversially, Bahrain.

A curious and notable absence is Petit Le Mans which will revert to being ALMS-only this year, not a popular decision and even worse when Bahrain was originally scheduled for the same weekend. That madness has been avoided but PLM still falls between two Asian WEC events on weekends either side of it, so it’ll be very difficult indeed for any WEC teams to compete in Georgia.

March 17th – 12 Hours of Sebring (with ALMS)
May 5th – 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps
June 3rd – Le Mans Test Day
June 16th – 24 Hours of Le Mans (with other invitiationals)
August 26th – 6 Hours of Silverstone
September 16th – 6 Hours of Sao Paulo
September 30th – 6 Hours of Bahrain
October 14th – 6 Hours of Fuji
Novmeber 11th – 6 Hours of Shanghai

Prototypes

In LMP1, the fight between the HPD teams Strakka, JRM and at Sebring, Muscle Milk should be tight and they’ll be up against the Lolas of Rebellion, and OAK and Pescarolo with their eponymous chassis. Throw in a mix of engines from HPD (Honda) to Toyota to Judd and at Sebring a Mazda as well. All the runners are on Michelins except for the Dunlops on the OAK and Dyson cars. Familiar names include Brabham, Prost, Chandhok, Heidfeld, Bleekemolen, Watts, Kane, Collard and Boullion.

LMP1 isn’t the only interest, there is a strong field in the petrol half of LMP1, and in LMP2 and the two GTE categories. At Sebring we have the added excitement of the ALMS contenders joining the fun, and at Le Mans we’ll see some of the best teams from the ALMS and ELMS join the WEC for the classic 24 Hours. Also at Le Mans we will see the race debut of the Delta Wing which promises to be very exciting – I hope it is reliable!

LMP2 is worth watching for once. No longer is it a collection of underfunded teams with cars which break down easily. There are solid entries from Signatech, OAK (again), Greaves, PeCom and even the GrandAm team Starworks are entering the WEC. Cars range from Lolas to Orecas to Zyteks to HPDs to Morgans (rebadged OAK) and engines from Nissan, Judd, HPD and Lotus. All cars are on Dunlops. The drivers may be less familiar but Starworks signed a coup with Stephane Sarrazin for the longer races.

GT

GTE Pro features Fisichella and Bruni with AF Corse, in their other car Olivier Beretta switches from Corvette. They’re up against the similar car of Luxury Racing with Vernay, Melo and Makowiecki. Aston Martin rejoin the field after their LMP stints and they have Mucke, Turner and Fernandez. Felbermayr’s line-up of Lieb and Lietz is not to be doubted either. At Sebring of course they are joined by the very strong ALMS teams of Corvette, BMW and various Porsche teams.

GTE Am is for year-old cars and they must run at least one (or two?) amateur drivers. Larbre Competition have a couple of Corvettes and Pedro Lamy, AF Corse and Luxury also entered Ferraris here (including one for Michael Waltrip at least for Sebring), Felbermayr have another Porsche and don’t count out Krohn’s green Ferrari.

Others

There are 35 cars signed up for the full season. These will be joined by ‘wild card’ entries through the year, though we don’t know the details yet.

At Sebring we add in the Prototype and GT Challenge classes for spec Orecas and Porsches respectively. 64 cars at Sebring, and 56 at Le Mans including the Delta Wing.

Even if Audi does win it all, the other classes should be interesting. Perhaps more interesting is this is the first ‘building’ year of the series, taking a step up from last year’s ILMC. After showing what it can do this year, who else might enter in 2013 and 2014? There are exciting years ahead!

How Would You Change the Public Perception of F1?

This post is part of Thursday Thoughts which this week is hosted by Gridwalk Talk. You can see the full set of responses in this Bit.ly bundle.

If you succeeded Bernie Ecclestone with controlling and owning Formula 1, how would you change the public perception of F1?

In many respects I think what poor perceptions F1 does have is down to the FIA as much as Bernie and FOM. The two go hand-in-hand. The poor stewards decisions of the last several years have had a bad effect on the perception of the series, particularly outside of what you might call the ‘heartlands’ here in Europe, I’ve noticed many IndyCar fans in particular have been quite negative towards it (though you may rightly argue those in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones).

Jean Todt’s FIA Presidency has taken large strides towards fixing one half of the image problem and I intend to write a post soon about the recent World Council decisions and not just those relating to F1. I really do think F1 is moving in the right direction in terms of the officialdom and stewardship by the FIA. Now it is time for the commercial arm to catch up.

One of the things which makes F1 different to other championships is that it is quite exclusive, in some ways I agree with it yet it doesn’t need to be taken to the extremes that have existed for a few years now. It isn’t necessary to have the whole paddock fenced off is it? Teams like Virgin and Lotus have done well to break down these barriers with paddock tours, while McLaren, Red Bull and others offer similar although I think maybe only to fan club members. I am sure there are areas which can be opened up a little.

The driver signing sessions at each GP have helped fan-access too and more of this sort of thing is to be encouraged.

I would also make sure the KangarooTV units were readily available at every race. I attended the Belgian GP and it was very useful indeed, I have no idea how I’d have kept track of the race otherwise because you can’t hear the circuit tannoy over the engines (and the circuit feed is available on it too, so the locals can stay informed too).

Online

Speaking both as a fan and as someone with a blog, the decision not to make better use of YouTube is frustrating. The ‘race edits’ and single-lap onboards at F1.com could easily be re-blogged by many a site with all the promotion that would bring, yet they’ve chosen to keep it locked to their own format complete with threatening copyright notice. There is the danger it could be used by every F1 fan site out there, but isn’t that better than denying the use of any F1 video at all? Many sites often resort to using ‘unofficial’ video, because there are times when you can’t get away with just not including what you are talking about. There should be a means of fans being able to locate and watch clips of moments in history, and for bloggers to be able to use them.

This is already happening elsewhere, all sorts of series, teams, drivers, and even race track owners are getting in on the action but their F1 equivalents have to navigate the minefield of what FOM will let them use. The same for TV companies who don’t have the rights to the coverage but wish to report on the latest happenings, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen reference to current F1 in some documentary or other – even reputable ones – yet they are using stock footage from 30 years ago, from before the restrictions came in. You have people making positive content showing F1 in a good light and they can’t use footage to showcase it. This is absolutely crazy.

The website itself is okay as a structure, could probably use a bit of work here and there. What it really needs is far more video. It should be possible to either watch the race live online or at least on a delayed basis, without commentary if that is a sticking point contractually (I am sure someone can provide it). If there is anything at all that is controversial a replay should be online within 24 hours for fans to review and form their own opinion, or even non-controversial things which are notable, at a director’s discretion. Get people talking about it – even more than they already do – without the need for those pesky unofficial YouTube videos. And upload them to YouTube officially.

Locations

Many complain about the ‘new’ venues in F1. While I am one of them I do like to give circuits more of a chance than some people do. It is worth trying to go to Korea because that is a big tech market, and while I’m sure it is little secret the race only exists because of a major sponsor of the series there is no reason why the Koreans can’t be big F1 fans in time. I have a gut feeling they’ll take to it better than the Chinese, who haven’t.

Ultimately every venue should be given the opportunity to grow and develop. If it doesn’t, it is time to move on.

The cost of race tickets needs urgent attention. F1 is seen as being far too expensive to follow in person. The sole cause of these costs are the fees charged to the circuits, who can only recoup that loss through ticket sales (trackside advertising revenue goes to the F1 Group). Lower the fees to a respectable level, allow the circuits to make a viable profit – even only a minor one – and the ticket prices will fall and the stands will fill once again. It doesn’t look good when even the most well-attended races have gaps in the stands.

I’d also have a word with the teams to get them to stop selling such extortionate merchandise. Who’s going to pay £75 for a fleece or £40 for a polo shirt? Particularly if you can’t wear the thing because it is plastered in bright logos? I’m not saying devalue the F1 association, just allow people to actually buy the stuff.

Other

‘Casual fans’ and non-fans complain F1 is too boring. This is potentially being addressed by almost-annual major rule changes. They didn’t necessarily work in 2010 when many races were pretty much just as unexciting as 2009 (interesting in their own way, just not exciting), although this year the championship battle was among the best there has ever been. Again, for 2011 there are some major rule changes – we all await the outcome of those. That’s mainly an FIA decision mind you.

I do think the new-for-2010 teams have done a lot to breathe fresh air into F1 in their approach to fans and this has helped F1’s perception as a whole. If the other teams take this lesson on board, and if FOM/FIA do too (which would be a minor miracle), I can see an even brighter future ahead.

It is amazing that F1 has enjoyed such phenomenal growth without such concessions to fans. Imagine what it could’ve done with more openness.

If you succeeded Bernie Ecclestone with controlling and owning Formula 1, how would you change the public perception of F1?