By: Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
Reactions on Bahrain axe, Postponement or cancellation, Happy or not happy?
Reactions on Bahrain axe
Most teams have welcomed the decision to axe the Bahrain Grand Prix which was scheduled for March 13. Bahrain is plagued with civil unrest and the protests of anti-government and civil rights groups were initially answered with violence and death. Fortunately for the Bahraini people the situation has changed, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has ordered the release of all political prisoners, and now seems prepared to start a dialog with the opposition.
BBC commentator and ex-Formula one driver Martin Brundle about the axed race, "I don't think we were looking forward to going to Bahrain, shouting about a pole-position lap or applauding a podium when they have had all this turmoil. It has been a tragedy there and this is absolutely the right decision for Formula One."
His colleague BBC commentator David Coulthard wrote in his weekly column for the UK Telegraph: "This is a country fighting for its future and its entire identity. No sporting event should come before a nation's stability. It would certainly have not have felt right going there and calling my first race, getting caught up in the minutiae of events, knowing what had happened out on the streets."
Marussia Virgin Racing team principal John Booth agrees the safety of the Bahraini people is more important than racing, "It is with great sadness that we have watched events unfolding there over the past week and it is quite clear that there are far bigger matters at stake than whether a major sporting event can take place. Withdrawing from hosting the race at this time was the appropriate course of action and we fully support the decision."
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, "Collectively I think that they have reached the right decision. It's a great shame to lose Bahrain. It's a great track with great facilities. But I'm sure we will be back there soon. It was a difficult decision but ultimately the right one." Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber was the first driver to voice his concerns, "When you hear of people losing their lives, this is a tragedy," he said. "It's probably not the best time to go there for a sporting event. They have bigger things, bigger priorities."
Renault team principal Eric Boullier gave his opinion about the situation as well. "The recent situation in Bahrain has been very difficult for the country. We feel the decision taken by the Crown Prince is wise and we fully support it," the Frenchman said. Nick Heidfeld also gave his opinion about the situation in Bahrain, "It's not just about the safety of those involved, but being sensitive to what is going on in the country."
Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren team principal had his say as well, "The cancellation of any Grand Prix is always a disappointment for all concerned -- but, bearing in mind the situation in the Middle East at present, we fully support the Crown Prince's decision. I hope that F1 and our friends around the world will understand our decision at this difficult time."
And it is good to see Formula One is not always just about money, sponsors and TV rights, but Formula One and everyone who is involved in the sport, have now shown they have a conscience, and have made a decision based on moral, rather than on commercial interests.
Postponement or cancellation?
Although Ecclestone is still speaking of a postponement rather than a cancellation, others believe the Bahrain Grand Prix will not take place at all this year. "Obviously it would depend on the political situation there, so we would not plan anything in the next few months, " Ecclestone said yesterday. He was also disappointed, "I'm a little bit disappointed that it has now been postponed, but if you look at the way that part of the world is at the moment, it is the only thing anyone could do."
The race calendar is very tight this year, even with one race less. The problem is that the Bahrain Grand Prix was the season-opener, if it was to be rescheduled, the race promoters and FOM and FIA will have to find a slot in the 2011 calendar, which will be difficult, if not impossible.
The only gap in the calendar is in early August when the whole Formula One circus grinds to a halt for a period of three weeks for the usual summer break, but during the break there is a mandatory closure of all the teams' factories and workshops, which also means teams can't prepare for an unscheduled race. Another problem is that the temperatures in the tiny Gulf Kingdom are extreme high during that time of the year.
There are also speculations Bahrain could replace the Indian Grand Prix on October 30 when the track isn't finished in time, but the latest reports from India indicate the building of the circuit is still going as planned, and is even ahead of schedule, so there is no reason to believe the Indian Grand Prix will be cancelled or delayed.
There are a few more possibilities to squeeze in the Bahrain Grand Prix, but Bahrain is not around the corner and logistical problems are the main obstacle when the race would be rescheduled while Formula One is racing in Europe. Toro Rosso team manager Gianfranco Fantuzzi, "The sea freight schedule is very tight, with the equipment moving from one race to another and then another, with very little flexibility in this area."
Another possibility is to stage the venue on November 20, after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix. But that would mean three races in three weeks, and although Formula One is extremely versatile, it remains to be seen whether teams and their employees can cope with the extra workload, especially at the end of an already very long season.
But the decisive factor will be what happens in Bahrain, currently the whole Gulf region is in turmoil, and in many countries protests are answered with violence. Only time will tell whether Bahrain and other countries are able to solve the problems they are now facing.
Happy or not happy?
Teams now have two more weeks to prepare for the season-opener in Australia. Some teams have welcomed the two extra weeks, others are less enthusiastic. McLaren and Mercedes are happy, as they have found out during testing their car is absolutely not up to par, and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton is happy with the delay. "I am not too unhappy about the world championship only starting in Australia, because it gives us more time," the 2008 World Champion said. And added, "We have some catching up to do and not a lot of time until the season starts."
Mercedes Sport Director Norbert Haug was quoted saying by a German magazine when asked about the extra time, "At this point before the start of a season, all the teams are doing things literally at the very last minute." But there is no time for radical design changes, and the German admitted all teams just have 'a little bit more air'.
Replacement driver Heidfeld about Renault's chances this year, "I sadly have to disappoint everyone who is thinking that we are top of the grid now because of the fastest lap of Robert [Kubica] in Valencia and mine in Jerez. Certainly we work hard to chance this." Which also means Renault has extra time to get rid of their current gremlins which have hampered the development of the car.
And interestingly enough, the winner of last year's Constructors' and Drivers' championship Red Bull, and according to insiders currently the team with the fasted car, the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix could help them as well. Team principal Horner, "With its long straights, Bahrain would not have been our showcase race." Melbourne is an altogether different circuit, with tight corners where acceleration is more important than straight-line speed, so the Australian circuit will certainly suit the Red Bull team better.
The Williams team cannot be happy with the cancellation, British newspapers have reported Williams Grand Prix Holdings have lowered the price of it shares for their upcoming stock flotation. The price range has been decreased from 24-29 Euro to 25-27 Euro a share as a result of the Middle East crisis.
A few people were not happy with the way Formula One's governing body, the FIA, has handled the situation in Bahrain. Or should we say, did not address the situation at all. FIA President Jean Todt has been remarkably silent. He was in Ireland and when asked by reporters about the situation, he only managed to squeeze out a few words and said he 'always tried not to overreact on breaking stories', and added there was no reason for 'unnecessary concerns'.
In fact the cancellation was a decision made by Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, not by Ecclestone personally or the commercial rights holder FOM. Although the FIA came with a statement one day later which indicated the FIA fully supported the decision, the FIA also stated: "This decision is the outcome of the close co-operation between the FIA, Formula One Management [FOM], the Bahrain Motor Federation and the Bahrain International Circuit." A number of reporters found this very hard to believe the FIA had been involved in the decision, and thus were more than happy to give Todt the nickname "Mr. Invisible".
And last but not least, is Australia still happy with Formula One? Red Bull driver Webber is happy Melbourne will host the season-opener this year, but some of the local politicians are not entirely happy. Federal MP Michael Danby declared in parliament, "The Grand Prix may have been a good deal in 1996, when it cost the government only A$1.7m; but, with falling crowd numbers and taxpayers footing a A$50m-a-year bill, the government should cut its losses and walk away."
Last month Melbourne's lord mayor Robert Doyle also called to not continue the event after the contract expires in 2015. But are they right? Apart from the financial issues, the Australian Grand Prix has always been the season-opener before Bahrain came into play, and the dwindling number of spectators could perhaps be attributed to the fact Melbourne was no longer a season-opener. But the venue has always been one of the highlights of the season, and it is also the highlight of the year for the local economy, and with the 'boring' Bahrain Grand Prix of 2010 in mind, Melbourne will be an excellent venue to start this year's Formula One season.
Join us again next week for another episode of "Formula One: On and off track"