By Max Davies, F1 correspondent
- Dan Guerney on US open wheel racing
- Bahrain May 1 deadline has expired
- Ecclestone not giving up Bahrain GP
A few years ago, I spoke to Dan Gurney and asked him his thoughts on the state of Indycar racing. Our conversation took place when the civil war that had blighted the American open wheel series since 1996 was at its height and showed no signs of dissipating.
“We have to be careful not to loose sight of why we’re all here,” he said shaking his head. “Until this freakin’ war broke out, Indycar used to be, in terms of excitement, the best racing series on the planet. Sure, Formula One is the pinnacle of technology but do they have the most diverse calendar with Super Speedways, one-mile ovals, street and road courses? Cars that actually ‘look’ like motorised monsters? Are the drivers able to run at 230mph for 500 miles? Hell no!”
He continued: “The one thing we haven’t got over here is someone to take both the IRL and Champ Car bosses, smack their heads together and take the sport by the scruff of the neck and give it some direction. You ask me what can be done to improve the sport? Simple, get us Bernie Ecclestone…”
Thankfully, the American open wheel community is in a healthier state that it was at the time of my interview with Dan and I must say I am relieved in more ways than one. Of course it is better for the world’s most diverse series to be unified but I cannot help wondering if such calls for the ‘Bernie’ touch would be as forthcoming in light of the recent thought processes of Formula One’s silver-haired messiah.
Lest we forget, the Bahrain Grand Prix race was originally scheduled as the Formula One season opener back in March but had to be postponed due to the political unrest which was spreading across the Arabic world. All of us were witnesses to scenes of protesters meeting the harsh force of a government intent on dissolving the troubles quickly and with little regard for the health and safety of the country’s inhabitants in the process.
Electing to stay away from Bahrain was the only option for Formula One yet Ecclestone’s announcement that the race would be postponed and possibly ‘slotted’ into an already crammed 20-race schedule was ridiculous. The teams and their employees get little rest during the year and the logistics of trying to squeeze in what would have effectively been another race is an untenable proposition.
Fact is that while Bernie is undoubtedly Formula One’s deal maker, it is not for him to decide whether the race can or cannot go ahead. He has, some would say, grown a little drunk on his own power in recent years and this whole scenario of the ‘will it, won’t it’ story is a tiresome one.
At the request of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, the FIA postponed the 2011 race when the Persian Gulf nation was suddenly embroiled in political unrest in February and set a May 1 deadline for a decision on whether an alternate date could be negotiated for later in the season. This deadline has now come and gone with no official word but the following statement was released at the time of the cancellation:
“We gratefully acknowledge the understanding of Formula One Management and the FIA in what have been difficult times,” the Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed Rashid Alzayani said at the time of the announcement in March. “We also thank the continued support of the international motorsport community and Formula One fans around the world.
“Clearly our national priority is to find a resolution to the difficulties that the kingdom of Bahrain has experienced. The national situation has moved on in a positive manner, the situation is evolving all the time; our day-to-day life is gradually improving under the current State of National Safety.
“Bahrain’s Grand Prix is a time of celebration and hosting the race is a source of great pride for Bahrain and Bahrainis. It is a showcase to the world and we look forward to welcoming the teams and drivers and everyone involved in Formula One back to Bahrain in the very near future.”
Like a dutiful dog, Bernie backed up his Arabic billionaire acquaintances in confirming his desire to ensure the F1 coffers are kept intact and to keep the race open to a future within the sport.
I have always been confident that they will produce something special
“Bahrain’s commitment to Formula One has been clear from the very outset,” he declared. “While obviously the kingdom has had to put its national affairs first I have never been in any doubts that restoring the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix has been of paramount importance. In eight years with my relationship with Bahrain I have always been confident that they will produce something special.”
Is that in terms of the race they put on or the size of the cheque they give you Bernie?
The circuit should never be allowed to grace the sport again, full stop. It is as bland a creation as any to have staged a motor race and is the Hungaroring of the Middle East. Barron deserts, empty grandstands situated hundreds of yards away from the circuit, are hardly the ideal marketing tools to promote the sport for a watching world of millions.
I remember the joke that was the Tanaka International circuit in Aida, Japan which hosted but two Formula One races back in 1994 and 1995 before being canned just as quickly as it arrived. Situated in the middle of nowhere, spectators and journalists could only enter and vacate the facility via chartered coaches and the facilities were very poor, to say nothing of the circuit itself. At the time Bernie’s big wish was to crack the Far East market with another race besides F1’s visit to Suzuka in October. China was supposed to hold a race at the newly constructed Zhuhai International Circuit but for various political reasons, that fell through so Ecclestone headed over to Japan and the TI circuit.
Thankfully Bernie woke up and smelt the coffee and never went back to the facility after ’95 and one must hope the same sense of smell is discovered in 2011. Does Formula One need Bahrain on the calendar from a motor racing point of view? No. Does it need it from a business point of view via the Bahraini millions on offer? Undoubtedly, yes.
Which though, is the more important of those questions to focus on? That is the more difficult problem to understand in terms of Bernie’s thought process and his plans for the future of grand prix racing. Yes it’s great to be seen as a ‘world-championship’ that literally does travel the world, but is it worthwhile visiting a country with as much proven passion for motor racing as I have for the personality of Kimi Raikkonen?
Money does, as we all know, rule the world and F1 is certainly not exempt from this but should the sport really keep visiting venues like Bahrain (to say nothing of North Korea or China) just because they are willing to pay billions into the Bank of Bernie?
Formula One is supposed to be a ‘sport’ after all.