Formula One - On And Off Track Week 24

By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Formula One - On And Off Track Week 24

Story Highlights

  • Bahrain once more - FOM and FIA’s U-turn
  • Carlos Gracia’s report to the FIA WMSC
  • Damon Hill resigns as BRDC President

Bahrain once more - FOM and FIA’ s U-turn

When the FIA last week announced the Bahrain Grand Prix would be reinstated they were confident they had made the right decision, but now almost five days later it seems that FIA President Jean Todt and FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone finally had some time to read the newspapers. But what they read probably wasn’t very good news for them, as they on Monday decided to bite the dust and both gentleman suddenly announced Formula One going to Bahrain might not be such a good idea after all.

Jean Todt, FIA president and Bernie Ecclestone
Jean Todt, FIA president and Bernie Ecclestone

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The FIA is again open to the idea the race could be cancelled again if the situation in Bahrain would take a turn for the worse, and the safety of all those who have to travel to Bahrain can not be guaranteed. “If we have clear evidence that there is a risky situation this will obviously be taken into consideration,” Todt said.

So far the question for the FIA had solely revolved around the safety of Formula One and its personnel, and not about the safety of the people of Bahrain, nor were they worried about the fact Formula One could be associated with the deeds of the brutal regime in Bahrain. So, what did Ecclestone and Todt read in the newspapers?

The Formula One teams, united in the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA), have written a letter to the FIA, several media reported the FOTA wants to overturn the decision, but the FOTA has not disclosed the content of the letter.

Damon Hill, told the BBC, “I think the trouble with Formula One is that it's a bubble. It goes around the world and people live in this bubble and they seem to feel they're immune to everything else that's happening.”

The sport should have taken a much firmer stance earlier this year

Mark Webber

Mark Webber also voiced his concerns. “In my personal opinion, the sport should have taken a much firmer stance earlier this year rather than constantly delaying its decision in hope of being able to re-schedule it in 2011. It would have sent a very clear message about Formula One’s position on something as fundamental as human rights and how it deals with moral issues,” the Australian said.

Chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) Rubens Barrichello is worried about the safety. “I want to be sure that we will be safe there. In the GPDA meetings, all of the drivers showed concern and demanded safety to race in Bahrain. Of course we will have more traveling and work. The teams will have much more work to do. But for us, the drivers, what really matters is safety. The rest is not important.”

Todt didn’t get much support from ex-FIA President Max Mosley, who thinks the Bahrain decision must be reversed or ‘F1 will live to regret it’. In his column for the UK Daily Telegraph Mosley explained that it was inevitable that any global sport series will have to visit ‘any number of countries where people are oppressed, kept in poverty, held without trial and mistreated (or worse) in prison’.

Ex-FIA President Max Mosley
Ex-FIA President Max Mosley

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But at the same time he condemned the decision of the WMSC by stating, “The line has to be drawn when a sporting event is not mere entertainment in a less-than-perfect country, but is being used by an oppressive regime to camouflage its actions." And he added, ”If a sport accepts this role, it becomes a tool of government. If Formula One allows itself to be used in this way in Bahrain, it will share the regime's guilt as surely as if it went out and helped brutalize unarmed protesters.”

Mosley also suggested the FIA can not change the calendar without the unanimous approval of all teams. “I will be astonished if the event goes ahead. I don't think it will happen. You need the written agreement of every team and I don't believe that is going to be forthcoming,” Mosley said.

Mosley wasn’t impressed by the way the FIA had assessed the current situation in Bahrain, and on Monday he stepped up the antics when he told the BBC the FIA had sent FIA Vice President Carlos Gracia to Bahrain, a man who ‘has been the head of the Spanish Federation for ages’, and claimed ‘he speaks no English and speaks no Arabic’. He also mentioned Garcia got a guided tour by ‘representatives of the government, which is not in any way a proper look into the situation in Bahrain’.

Ecclestone made a complete U-turn, as he had been the one who had pushed the hardest to get the race back on the calendar again from the day it was cancelled. “We listened to that report from the FIA and that was saying there were no problems at all in Bahrain,” he said. “But that is not what I am hearing and I think we can see that we need to be careful.” And the 80-year old Ecclestone already found the solution, “Better that we move Bahrain to the end of the season and, if things are safe and well, then that is fine, we can go. If they are not [safe], then we don't go and there are no problems.”

Perhaps Mosley’s words ‘Bahrain will cost Formula One dear’ finally rang a bell, and Ecclestone is now of a sudden not happy about the decision of the WMSC last Friday and thinks it is wrong to visit a country like Bahrain and has called for a revote. It seems he finally figured out the financial losses could be even higher if Formula One would go to Bahrain than the $40 million he would lose by canceling the event this year.

Carlos Gracia’s report to the FIA

Gracia’s report has been leaked and was published on the website of human rights organization Avaaz. Grazia traveled to Bahrain and arrived there on May 30 and went back home the next day to write his report for the FIA. During his visit Garcia met with the President of the Bahrain Motor Federation ASN at 10.00 AM, and during this meeting was ‘provided with a briefing on the actual political situation in Bahrain, along with an overview of Bahrain’s system of government and governmental institutions’. Which means he was briefed about the political situation by a motor sport federation.

During his next meeting an hour later he was introduced to the Minister of Culture and the Assistant Undersecretary for Tourism. According to Gracia’s report ‘the Minister expressed her appreciation of the FIA’s decision to visit Bahrain and conduct a first-hand evaluation’. An UNESCO delegate in Bahrain joined the meeting, and explained ‘he felt that the portrayal of the protests in the international media had been inaccurate’.

Again some one and an half hours later, Gracia met with Bahrain’s Minister of Interior and the Chief of Public Safety, who during a ‘warm reception’, of course told him the situation in Bahrain had ‘returned to normal’. They claimed 70 per cent of the people who were arrested had been released again, but of course forgot to mention the remaining 30 per cent is still in prison without any form of trial.

Carlos Gracia visited Bahrain International Circuit
Carlos Gracia visited Bahrain International Circuit

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Next was a meeting and a lunch with officials of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC). When quizzed about the reports 25 per cent of the circuit’s workforce had been dismissed for political or religious reasons, a BIC CEO and its Chairman denied this and stated 15 people had been dismissed ‘due to unjustified labour absences’. Garcia states in his report he then ‘consulted a specialist’ -- without mentioning his name or what he was exactly specialized in -- who told him ‘Bahrain Labour Laws are very strict’ and any infringements ‘were punished severely’.

Gracia then visited the circuit itself, and was allowed to conduct interviews with circuit personnel, Garcia was allowed to pick six staff members he wanted to interview himself. After he did, Gracia came to the conclusion ‘they were al unanimous in indicating that motor racing helped cement relationships in Bahrain’, and all were ‘grateful for the opportunity afforded to speak freely and provide us with their opinions.’

After that it was time for the fun part: a visit to the city of Manama for a night in the town. Gracia visited the city with the State of Emergency still in place, which was probably the reason why he came to the conclusion that ‘citizens were going about their daily lives’ when he visited a shopping mall. There he met, due to what probably must have been a rare coincidence, ‘a group of young people who were petitioning for a call of the return of Formula One to Bahrain.’ Garcia then signed the petition himself as ‘a gesture of goodwill in recognition of their initiative and efforts’.

Next he met foreign businessmen and company representatives over dinner, who of course explained to him the situation in Bahrain was back to normal, and they were still more than happy to invest money in the island kingdom.

Back in Barcelona, Gracia wrote his report, and again no surprise, came to the conclusion ‘there is no indication of any problems or reason why the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix should not return to the 2011 calendar’. He also concluded ‘security is guaranteed including readiness for unforeseen events both inside and outside the circuit’.

His report was sent to the FIA’s WMSC ahead of the meeting in Barcelona on Friday June 3, and with the information they found in Garcia’s report, the WMSC decided it was safe to race in Bahrain. The decision was heavily criticized and this week on Tuesday Gracia defended his report in an interview with Reuters. “I have spoken to human rights groups and they told me they [human rights] have not been violated,” the Spaniard said.

About his report he said, “These are freely expressed opinions. I think the opinions of those on site are worth more than those who have no knowledge of the situation. When these protests take place, the opposition is using a large event to make themselves known and paint a picture of a situation that is not the real one.” Whether it was safe to go to Bahrain he commented, “If there are controlled, non-violent protests, it does not seem a terrible thing to us.”

Damon Hill stepping down as BRDC President

Hill today announced he will be stepping down as President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) in August of this year. The now 50-year old son of Graham Hill had like his father a successful career in Formula One, and won the World Championship in 1996.

”It has been a great privilege and honor to serve as BRDC President since 2006,” Hill commented on his decision. Hill was the one who set the complete renovation of the Silverstone Circuit, owned by the BRDC, in motion after he managed to sign a 17-year contract with Ecclestone's FOM. Silverstone recently finished the renovation and the new pit complex, the Silverstone Wing, has been officially opened just a few weeks ago.

Damon Hill will step down as BRDC President in August
Damon Hill will step down as BRDC President in August

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During the opening Hill said, “The official opening of the Silverstone Wing represents the culmination of many years hard work and gives a clear statement of intent for the future. The BRDC is extremely proud of this new building, but we acknowledge that none of it would have been possible without our superb and exceptional Silverstone team.”

”As a club and business, we can be immensely proud of everything we have achieved for British motor sport over the past few years. The BRDC and Silverstone face a stable and exciting future, so the timing is right for me to hand over the reins,” he added.

BRDC chairman Stuart Rolt about Hill, “I cannot speak highly enough of the superb work that Damon has carried out since his appointment as BRDC President.” He also praised Hill for his determination and efforts to reinstate Silverstone as a first class motor sport venue, “We owe him an immense debt of gratitude for the commitment and energy he has put into being the public face of the Club, and therefore Silverstone, at times of uncertainty and then great optimism.”

Hill will now dedicate his time to his family, but he remains involved in the BRDC, “I remain a committed member of the BRDC and look forward to watching the club go from strength to strength.”

Rolt announced BRDC Board Director Derek Warwick will be a candidate for President of the BRDC, “The Board is delighted that Derek is willing to offer himself for election as BRDC President, to take over from Damon. In Derek we have another hugely experienced, yet down to earth, genuine racer.”

The BRDC is a very exclusive club, and membership is highly sought after. In the past many great names have become a member of the BRDC, past Presidents were Innes Ireland (1992-1993), Alexander Hesketh (1993-2000), Ken Tyrrell (2000) and Jackie Stewart (2000-2006).

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 23

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