Formula One Business Diary: Bahrain – the crowd, Zain, Carlos Slim and Pirelli

The Bahrain Grand Prix remains the most uncomfortable event on the Formula One calendar, a result of the size of the kingdom and over two years of political protest and occasional violence, although this year’s race was largely free of the type of violence and safety concerns some had feared.

It has, by some distance, turned into the most uncomfortable race weekend of the season for Formula One – and the sport's image. The ninth Bahrain Grand Prix took place without the kind of violence or political protest some had feared, and there was certainly less controversy than in 2012 when local organisers brazenly politicised the Grand Prix through its misguided 'UniF1ed' tagline. But, partly because of the very real issues in the kingdom and partly because Bahrain’s tiny size seems to magnify those issues, the Grand Prix still somehow feels tarnished. The sport puts Bahrain on the map – that, after all, is the reason Bahrain's government invests hundreds of millions of dollars in the venue and the race – and its presence provides a platform for both the kingdom's rulers, to show Bahrain is open for business, and protesters, desperate to let the world hear their voice. The rights and wrongs of staging a Formula Onerace in Bahrain have become a subject of annual debate, which, ultimately, does little for the kingdom's image – whatever the undoubted good work of the Bahrain International Circuit staff in welcoming the sport, the wider question which needs to be asked is, is it worth being on the map if nobody wants to visit? Even a floodlit race, which has been suggested for 2014, may not be enough of an image change.

Numbers game

Even before the kingdom's well-documented political issues, the Bahrain Grand Prix routinely attracted the smallest crowd of the Formula One season – in part due to the relatively small capacity of 50,000 at the Bahrain International Circuit but also because Sunday is a working day in the kingdom. Since the event was cancelled in 2011, attendances have predictably dwindled as the security measures around the circuit have been ramped up. This year, circuit officials claimed some 28,000 attended Sunday's race, part of a three-day crowd that numbered 73,000. If accurate, it constituted a rise on the 2012 numbers, although the sight of the main spectator area, the 10,500-capacity pit straight grandstand, barely a third full suggests the reported numbers might have been massaged just a touch.

The name’s Zain

Vodafone might not be extending its title sponsorship deal with McLaren but it is making the most of its rights while they last. In much the same way as the telecommunications company replaced its usual logos with those of Verizon Wireless for last November's US Grand Prix, last weekend it used the Bahrain Grand Prix to promote partner brand Zain. Jenson Button attended a Zain Bahrain event to launch its new 4G network in the kingdom on the Thursday before the race, while Zain also took the prominent sidepod positions usually reserved for its partner.

Slim picking?

How significant might Sergio Perez's swashbuckling run to sixth place turn out to be for McLaren? The young Mexican finally put in a performance to justify the hype in Bahrain, a drive which included several closer than close encounters with teammate Button, on a weekend when the man who funded his way through the motorsport ranks made a rare appearance in the paddock. Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest men and the baron behind the Telmex empire, cut a relaxed pose in the paddock, accompanied by his high-flying son Carlos Slim Jr, but this is unlikely to have been simply a social call. Telmex, which currently backs the Sauber team, has been suggested as a replacement title partner for McLaren since the moment Vodafone confirmed its exit, while there are also lingering rumours about the return of the Mexican Grand Prix at some point in the not-so-distant future. The chase continues for Slim and his bagfuls of pesos.

Pirelli primed

The debate over the tyres Pirelli has produced for the early part of the season continues, with some suggesting they have spiced up the show a treat and others questioning whether the highdegradation has gone a touch too far. There is some merit in both points of view but, whatever your opinion, the Italian manufacturer should be praised for effectively going against the company philosophy of any tyremaker in designing products that degrade so quickly. Pirelli's tyre supply contract with Formula One expires at the end of the year, but it is believed to be on the verge of an extension – indeed, Martin Brundle, commentating for Sky Sports on Saturday, reported a five-year extension was already in the bag. Speaking on Friday, Pirelli's amiable motorsport director Paul Hembery wasn't giving much away but said if a deal is to be done it needs to be done soon. “As time passes,” he said, “we have to make decisions as a business. We’re not immune to what’s going on in the European automotive business in particular; sales were ten percent down in March in the overall market. That impacts heavily on us and we’re currently having to make action plans to address those challenges. I would think that from our point of view, sooner rather than later – time is of the essence, I would suggest now.”

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