Formula One - On And Off Track Week 50

Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Ecclestone wants proof Bahrain is not ‘safe’
  • Lotus Renault aim for 2015 title fight
  • 2012 F1 race seats almost sold out

Ecclestone wants proof Bahrain is not ‘safe’

FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone is still adamant the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix is still ‘safe’ -- in the broadest sense of the word. The 81-year old Formula One boss told in an interview with the UK Guardian ‘the people I've met there are lovely people’. When asked about the reports that doctors had been jailed after helping injured protestors who fought for more democracy in the tiny Gulf Kingdom, Ecclestone replied, “Do you know that? Do you actually know that? If that's right, it's wrong. Obviously.”

“We have been assured that this is not what's happening. In fact they had a report made, allegedly independent,” he added. Ecclestone in fact wants proof of the fact the people of Bahrain are being oppressed and molested by the government, as several human rights organizations claim. “Yes,” Ecclestone admitted, “there were instances or whatever, but ... I wanted to go out there. I was happy to go. I'd like to go into the prison or the hospital or whatever and ask: 'What actually happened?

Bernie Ecclestone CEO FOM opens the car display with Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Isa Hamad Al Khalifa
Bernie Ecclestone CEO FOM opens the car display with Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Isa Hamad Al Khalifa

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“Wherever I go, the minute you get off the plane, the minute you go into somebody's country, you've got to respect exactly what their way of life is -- their religion, their laws or whatever. It's not correct to go moving into somebody's country and try to change them,” the Briton explained.

That is of course very true, but this is not about trying to change a country, the question is: should Formula One ignore the fact human rights are being violated and people end up in jail for years without a proper process? Because that is the real question, it is the moral that counts, the question is not whether it is safe for Formula One to go to Bahrain -- or any other country -- the question is: is Bahrain safe for the people of Bahrain? Does Formula One want to be associated with these kind of atrocities?

Because there is another danger, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has told on numerous occasions, despite countless reports in reliable media that claim the opposite, that there are no problems in his country, and it could very well be he will use the arrival of Formula One to give the world the message his country is absolutely safe and human rights are not being violated at all.

Earlier this year the FIA had sent a delegate to Bahrain to investigate the matter, he was pampered by local authorities upon his arrival, was paraded through the city (of course far away from the square that had been the scene of the up rise), and even ‘accidentally’ encountered a protest group in a shopping mall who were in fact in favor of the Grand Prix, and the poor man even put his signature on the document that was presented to him.

Needless to say he reported to the FIA everything was hunky dory again in Bahrain, although a quick round through the social media would have revealed this is not the case. All he had to do was search for ‘Bahrain up rise’ on YouTube, to find out what is really going on.

Last year the Bahrain Grand Prix was first postponed, and not much later completely cancelled. Ecclestone finally gave up after enormous pressure from the public, human rights organizations and also from the Formula One teams and drivers. Today Ecclestone is equally stubborn, and the Bahrain Grand Prix is again back on the 2012 calendar, scheduled for April 22. Which means the Formula One boss still has four months to find out what really is going on in Bahrain, but it looks more likely he doesn’t want to know what is going on … and to use his own words: “If that's right, it's wrong. Obviously!”

Lotus Renault aim for 2015 title fight

After a disastrous 2011 campaign, Lotus Renault, to be named Lotus in 2012, has set itself the goal of fighting for the Formula One title within three years. A very ambitious plan, but possible according to Team Principal Eric Boullier. “Over three years our aim is to be considered as one of the top teams, which means to start winning on a regular basis and be in a position to fight for the title,” the Frenchman said. Asked about his expectations for the 2012 season he said, “It’s pretty clear for 2012. We’re determined to win back that fourth place we promised ourselves. `

Kimi Raikkonen returns to F1 with Lotus Renault
Kimi Raikkonen returns to F1 with Lotus Renault

Photo by: Lotus Renault F1

Indeed, although the start of the season resulted in two third places during the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix, it soon became apparent Lotus Renault slowly lost ground, also as a result of Robert Kubica’s rally crash in February, which saw him sidelined for the rest of the season. A major setback for Boullier and his men, German Nick Heidfeld was hired to replace the Pole, but was replaced himself by Bruno Senna, who really couldn’t impress either. To make things worse, the forwards pointed revolutionary exhaust system proved to be a complete disaster, Lotus Renault finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship, but only just as Force India only finished four points behind them.

The team needed a major revamp and decided to come up with a completely new driver line-up for 2012, and instead of hiring ‘pay drivers’, managed to lure Kimi Raikkonen back to Formula One, something that financially speaking must have cost them an arm and a leg. Nevertheless a good decision, the Finn is still hungry as he has recently stated, and Lotus will find themselves in the limelight as all eyes will be on star driver Raikkonen next season.

Gérard Lopez, Genii Capital Chairman and Lotus Renault team owner confirmed his team is ready to step up its performance, “All year long, we kept saying that our team was at the start of a brand new cycle. Backstage we’ve been working hard to build the foundations of a successful structure and to ensure that we would soon be able to fight at the highest level.”

The 32-year old flying Finn hasn’t raced in Formula One for two years, but he thinks he will get used to the 212 spec cars. “It was an easy choice to return with Lotus Renault GP as I have been impressed by the scope of the team’s ambition. Now I’m looking forward to playing an important role in pushing the team to the very front of the grid,” he said, adding, “I wouldn't come back if I wasn't motivated. There's always a lot of talk about it but nobody really knows what I do or what I think so I don't really care what people say.”

Lopez is adamant Raikkonen was the right choice and commented, “I can summarise it in one word. He is fast. I think he will fit in very well with the way we do things; it’s a good place for him to fit in.” And added, “As a midfield-placed team hiring Kimi, you do so with the intent of being at the top.”

More surprises from the team as they also announced Romain Grosjean, current GP2 champion, will now race alongside Raikkonen in 2012. The 25-year old Frenchman had already made his Grand Prix debut in 2009 when he replaced Nelson A. Piquet after the Hungarian Grand Prix, but it was a troublesome debut, his best result was a 13th place during the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Romain Grosjean, 2011 GP2 Series Champion
Romain Grosjean, 2011 GP2 Series Champion

Photo by: GP2 Media Service

But Grosjean is now back, much to the delight of his French sponsor oil company Total, who will also be an important sponsor for Lotus Renault in 2012. Boullier is not only Grosjean’s team boss, but also his manager and he commented, “Romain has shown a lot of maturity in the past twelve months both through his GP2 Series victory and his development as third driver with us. We were impressed when he drove for us in the first practice sessions in Abu Dhabi and Brazil.”

Grosjean was of course happy with his new 2012 contract, but is especially looking forward to driving alongside Raikkonen. “I feel very privileged to be given this opportunity. To be racing alongside a former World Champion and someone who is hungry and returning to Formula One will be a great experience, and I’m sure will help raise my level of performance too.”

Meanwhile, it is rumored Senna could return as a test or ‘Friday driver’ next year, the Brazilian doesn’t have much of a choice, Vitaly Petrov who was sure to keep his seat for 2012 is also looking for another employer, and doesn’t have many options either. Which leads to the next topic.

2012 Formula One race seats almost sold out

With Lotus Renault’s driver line-up now completed, there are only a few race seats available for 2012, theoretically there are still six seats available: two at Force India; two at Toro Rosso; one at Williams, and one at HRT, who today announced Team Principal Colin Kolles has left the Spanish outfit. Theoretically, as it is more than likely both Toro Rosso and Force India will at least retain one of their current drivers, and it is expected both teams will make an announcement this week.

Toro Rosso has four candidates: current drivers Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi, and rookies Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. The Italian team had many problems this season and were certainly not up to speed, but towards the end of the season their performance has dramatically improved, and Buemi and Alguersuari were able to score points again, which could lead to the conclusion both drivers were fast enough once they had the right tools.

The dilemma for Team Principal Franz Tost is clear, he has to decide whether to continue with his current driver line-up, or take a few chances and dismiss either Alguersuari or Buemi in favor of Ricciardo or Vergne. Luckily for the latter two, the decision will be a fair one, as both are already part of the Red Bull and Toro Rosso young drivers program, and whether they will get a chance or not does not depend on the size of their sponsor portfolio, but depends on their skills, and that is how it should be.

Paul di Resta - Rookie of the Year
Paul di Resta - Rookie of the Year

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Force India has currently two great drivers, Adrian Sutil and Rookie of the Year Paul di Resta, both have proved they are fast, but so is test driver Nico Hulkenberg who has indicated he will no longer hang around in Formula One as a test or Friday driver. Sutil has the financial backing of German sponsor Medion, and wherever Sutil goes, Medion will follow him, which makes him an interesting candidate for Williams, who were not able to close a deal with Raikkonen. One scenario could see Sutil move to Williams, while di Resta retains his place in the team, and Hulkenberg would succeed Sutil.

Williams and HRT seem to have a different approach, they postpone the decision as long as they possibly can, knowing that drivers are willing to pay millions for the last two remaining race seats, the longer they wait, the more money drivers are prepared to pay. Money is something Petrov certainly has, as does Dutch GP2 driver Giedo van der Garde, who has the backing of McGregor, and together with Sutil they would be the most likely candidates for Williams.

Apparently Petrov had a contract for 2012 with Lotus Renault, the rumors are that the team had to pay the Russian to get rid of him, which means he could also spend that money to get a seat at Williams. HRT has the last seat, and but follow the same tactics as Williams, and also play a waiting game to increase the value of that second race seat. Spanish female driver Maria de Villota, daughter of ex-Formula One driver Emilio de Villota, has been named as a candidate, but she has no experience at all, but could join the team as test and Friday driver.

Both Toro Rosso and Force India have hinted they will announce their 2012 driver line-up this week or at the latest before Christmas, only then the last pieces of the drivers’ puzzle will be completed.

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

Formula One - On and Off Track week 49

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Nick Heidfeld , Kimi Raikkonen , Giedo van der Garde , Paul di Resta , Robert Kubica , Emilio de Villota , Maria de Villota , Bruno Senna , Adrian Sutil , Sébastien Buemi , Colin Kolles , Vitaly Petrov , Nico Hulkenberg , Romain Grosjean , Daniel Ricciardo , Bernie Ecclestone , Jaime Alguersuari , Jean-Eric Vergne , Gerard Lopez
Teams Force India , Toro Rosso , Williams
Tags bahrain, bouman, ecclestone, featured, lotus renault, raikkonen