It’s back-to-back F1 races over the next two weekends. The teams are already on their way to the first of them, the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. But more attention is being focused on the second race of this double-header, the Bahrain Grand Prix. With ten days to go until F1 cars are due to take to the track, doubt remains over whether the race will happen or not.
If this feels like history repeating, that’s because it is. F1 was in much the same situation last year. The race was repeatedly postponed and eventually cancelled following the government’s brutal response to pro-democracy demonstrations in February 2011. At this stage, it looks increasingly as though this year’s race will also be cancelled.
The cancelled 2011 race
The Bahrain round first appeared on the F1 calendar in 2004. This was a landmark race for the sport - the first time the world championship had visited the Middle East. Last year, as the Arab Spring uprisings took hold in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, many Bahrainis seized the opportunity to lobby the leaders of the country’s hereditary monarchy for democratic reforms. The bloody suppression of their legitimate protests ultimately led to the cancellation of the race. But not before the FIA - F1’s governing body - went to great lengths to try to keep it on the calendar.
The FIA produced a widely derided report claiming the situation in the country had returned to normal. Commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone insisted the teams were happy to race in Bahrain. Both claims proved to be well wide of the mark. Just one week after the FIA completed its pro-Bahrain dossier the race organisers themselves cancelled the Grand Prix.
With time running out until the engines are due to fire up, F1 is in a similar situation. After months of toeing the FIA line, yesterday brought the first indication that the teams are concerned about racing there.
“We’re all hoping the FIA calls it off,” one unnamed team principal told The Guardian.
Ecclestone seems to have taken the hint, telling The Times: “If the teams don’t want to go, then we cannot make them.”
But the experience of last year reminds us to treat these words with caution. One day after Ecclestone told the world the race was “not on” in June last year, he made a last-ditch attempt to squeeze the race on the end of the 2011 calendar, according to the FIA. The financial stakes are high: Bahrain is one of the most lucrative races on the calendar for Ecclestone and the teams. And the race is a gigantic money-spinner for the Bahrain economy. But as the political situation shows further signs of deteriorating it looks increasingly likely F1 will have to bow to the inevitable and cancel the race.
That would leave Bahrain without a race for a second year in a row and with one year left to run on its current contract, it might be wise to let them get their house in order before committing to an F1 return beyond 2013.
Chinese Grand Prix early betting
McLaren are the form team at the moment and they have recent history on their side at the Shanghai International Circuit. The silver cars have won three of the last four races there.
Lewis Hamilton is priced at 3.0 to repeat his victories of 2008 and 2011, while Jenson Button is offered at 3.75 to claim his second win in Shanghai.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.