Grand Prix Business Diary: Bahrain

The Bahrain Grand Prix was an uneasy, tense event for Formula One, as the sport opened itself up to fierce criticism for staging a race in the troubled kingdom.

This was perhaps the most uneasy, tense weekend in Formula One’s history. The Bahrain Grand Prix took place in front of half-empty grandstands – not entirely unusual for a race held at a circuit with the smallest capacity in Formula One – and against a backdrop of politicial uncertainty in the tiny island kingdom.

None of this should have come as a surprise for the Formula One community and neither should the wave of negative publicity it received for being there in the first place; the sport's presence in Bahrain may have, in part at least, been intended to shine a light on Bahrain’s problems, but it also shone one on Formula One’s significant shortcomings in how it is perceived around the world.

It was a weekend that did Formula One and Bahrain no favours at all.

Although there were no serious incidents directly affecting the race, there are no shortage of questions to be answered about the morality of Formula One racing in Bahrain this year, the politicisation of the race in the ‘UniF1ed: One Nation in Celebration’ official event tagline and why exactly Formula One needed to take the risk and hold a race at a venue where, rightly or wrongly, at least some of the Formula One community were plainly uncomfortable. It was a weekend that, ultimately, did Formula One and, in terms of its aim of using a Grand Prix as a promotional tool to the world, Bahrain no favours at all.


Force India field the questions

The Force India team made headlines in Bahrain after several members of the team were caught up in an incident on the way back to their hotel in Manama on the Wednesday before the race. The incident, reportedly involving a petrol bomb, perhaps inevitably spooked the team and on Friday afternoon they decided not to participate in the second practice session so they could return to their hotel before dark. 

Much credit should go to Robert Fernley, Force India's deputy team principal, who handled the inevitable media scrum expertly and sensitively.


It brought to the fore many of the fears that those in the sport had about being in Bahrain and prompted an extraordinary paddock press conference involving Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Bernie Ecclestone, in which both insisted that the Grand Prix would be continuing and that there was no prospect of a late cancellation.

It really was a sorry situation all round but much credit should go to Robert Fernley, Force India’s deputy team principal, who handled the inevitable media scrum expertly and sensitively. He also managed to bat away questions about the distinct lack of global television coverage Force India received during Saturday’s on-track action by the Formula One Management-controlled on-site production unit.


Making a crowd

The Gulf Daily News English-language newspaper, the self-styled ‘Voice of Bahrain’, reported that 28,000 people attended the Bahrain Grand Prix – just over half the Bahrain International Circuit’s (BIC) capacity. According to the newspaper, BIC chairman Zayed Al Zayani also insisted between 25,000 and 30,000 spectators had attended on the first two days of the meeting. While the event was understandably quieter than usual Indian cricket superstar Yuvraj Singh did make the journey to Bahrain. However, after a trying Grand Prix for everybody involved, the weekend did at least end on a bright spot with ‘American electro pop duo’ LMFAO cancelling their post-race concert at the last minute.


Back to business

In amongst the politics and controversy there were a couple of sponsorship tidbits – this despite few of the major team sponsors entertaining clients at the Grand Prix this year – worth noting. McLaren's cars featured the Zain telecommunications brand, which is active in Bahrain, on the side of the drivers’ cockpits. The company ran a Twitter competition for spectators to take a photo of the logo to win an iPad, although, unusually, the deal was never formally announced by the team.

Meanwhile, running with ‘Out of the Blue’ branding on the engine cover in China, Sauber’s cars featured the words ‘True Blue’ this week. It has been suggested that the team is poised to announce a major new sponsorship deal at the Spanish Grand Prix, with one admittedly rather strange rumour suggesting the ‘True Blue’ may refer to Chelsea FC and its Russian owner Roman Abramovich. All should be revealed in Barcelona, when Formula One in general will hope for a more straightforward Grand Prix weekend. 


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