Hard decision due over Bahrain GP
World motor sport council must balance pressure from different interest groups as it decides whether to reschedule race.
Last Modified: 02 Jun 2011 14:13
A poster advertises the Bahrain Grand Prix before it was abandoned over protests in the country [GALLO/GETTY]

Formula One must decide on Friday whether to satisfy Bahrain's rulers and reschedule the country's postponed Grand Prix or side with the teams and human rights campaigners to keep it off the calendar.

The outcome of the FIA's world motor sport council meeting in Barcelona is far from clear-cut, even if many Formula One insiders question whether the race can be reinstated into the current championship.

Commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone has said he hopes the Grand Prix, originally scheduled as the March 13 season-opener, will happen and organisers at the Sakhir circuit say they are ready to host it again after months of civil unrest, which flared up again as martial law was lifted on Wednesday.

Ecclestone, 80, and Bahrain's Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa al-Khalifa who heads the FIA's karting commission, are both on the 26-man motor sport council headed by president Jean Todt.

The biggest sticking point could be the calendar itself, rather than the risk of triggering outrage at the idea of racing in a country that has only just lifted emergency law after stifling pro-democracy protests.

It could also prove a useful face-saving device.

To accommodate Bahrain, it has been suggested that the inaugural Indian Grand Prix be moved from its October 30 slot to December 11 – the latest finish to a season since 1963 and a date too far for hard-pressed teams.

'Too much'

"It is getting too much," Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said at the Monaco Grand Prix last weekend.

"Our guys have been working since January... and we are asking them to work into December and that means there is no time for a holiday before Christmas and that would mean getting straight back in to it in January.

"So personally I think it is unacceptable and we've told Bernie that and he knows our opinion... our people cannot be expected to work in that environment and situation, so I think it is totally unacceptable."

Other teams such as McLaren, who have Bahrain holding company Mumtalakat as their biggest shareholder, and Ferrari have made clear that they have no objection to racing in Bahrain but question the timing.

Several long-standing paddock veterans suggested to the Reuters news agency that the December 11 date could give Ecclestone and Todt the excuse needed to avoid insulting the Bahrainis while keeping the race off the calendar until 2012, when it would again be the

"I fear that they will try to reinstate it," said one source who did not want to be identified due to the political sensitivity of the subject.

"But I think that given we are mid-season, the world motor sport council will narrowly reject it on grounds that there is insufficient time to change the calendar."

Both Ecclestone and Todt will want to avoid any unpleasantness however, mindful that Bahrain carries clout both commercially and politically within the sport as major investors and firm supporters of Todt.

Ecclestone said in February when the race was postponed that he had waived rights fees, estimated at around $40 million, due from Bahrain – and he will not want to jeopardise that relationship.

He has said repeatedly that Formula One, which has never been overly squeamish about which countries it visits, is not involved in religion or politics and "we don't make decisions based on those things."

The paddock source said Bahrain's ruling Khalifa family were major backers of F1 and the sport would be sensitive to that.

"But if the calendar comes out tomorrow and Bahrain is re-instated, there will be an almighty outcry."

There would also be the risk, as Ecclestone himself recognised last month, that the Bahrain Grand Prix would then become a prime target for protestors while the sport's image took a battering.

"Nobody knows which way it is going to go," said another Formula One source of a meeting that also includes Force India's billionaire owner Vijay Mallya.

"The teams have coded their language carefully and if they (the council) need a reason (not to reinstate the race), it's been handed to them on a plate."

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