By: Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
Bahrain Grand Prix event and pre-season test days cancelled
The Bahrain Grand Prix which was scheduled for March 11-13 has been cancelled following the protests of the people of the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain. The fourth and last of the pre-season test days scheduled for March 3-6 at the Sakhir International Circuit have been cancelled as well. The race could be rescheduled for later this season, but the organizers issued a statement in which they say a decision about a new date has not been made yet.
The statement also read: “The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) today announced that the Kingdom of Bahrain would withdraw from hosting this year's Formula One Grand Prix race so that the country can focus on its process of national dialogue.” Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has asked his son Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa to start a dialogue with the anti-government protesters. Crown Prince Salman, “At the present time the country's entire attention is focused on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain.”
FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone said last week he would let Crown Prince Salman make the decision, about this the statement said: “Although Bernie Ecclestone had graciously made clear that a decision on the race was entirely Bahrain's to make and was not yet required, we felt it was important for the country to focus on immediate issues of national interest and leave the hosting of Bahrain's Formula One race to a later date.”
Ecclestone commented after the news broke: “It is sad that Bahrain has had to withdraw from the race, we wish the whole nation well as they begin to heal their country. The hospitality and warmth of the people of Bahrain is a hallmark of the race there, as anyone who has been at a Bahrain Grand Prix will testify. We look forward to being back in Bahrain soon.”
The decision wasn’t easy, as Crown Prince Salman is also one of the promoters of the Grand Prix, and Bahrain pays $30 million each year to stage the venue. The Grand Prix is Bahrain’s biggest sport event, attracts a world-wide TV audience of over 500 million, and tourist revenues are also important for the Arab island kingdom.
However, the cancellation was not a surprise, as many teams and drivers had already hinted they would not feel at ease participating in a sporting event, whether this is testing or a Grand Prix, in a country where the anti-government protests could flare up again at any moment. “When you hear of people losing their lives, this is a tragedy. It's probably not the best time to go there for a sporting event. They have bigger things, bigger priorities,” Australian Mark Webber said last weekend.
Several European governments had already issued a negative travel advice during the weekend and warned people not to travel to Bahrain because their safety could not be guaranteed. Although the anti-government protesters have never threatened to disturb the testing or the race, they did indicate they would seek the attention of the international press that follows the Formula One circus to every corner of the world.
The Pearl roundabout in the capital of Bahrain, Manama, has been the heart of the many protests of the people of Bahrain, and since last week protesters have occupied the roundabout which now has become a national symbol of hope. Military forces have unsuccessfully tried to suppress the protests, so far seven people have been killed and hundreds have been wounded. Although the situation now seems to have improved, the race for more freedom for the people of Bahrain is far from over.
The decision had to be made today, as many teams were about to ship their equipment to Bahrain for the last pre-season test days. The FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) had already voiced their concerns after a meeting on Friday in Barcelona, but their concerns grew over the weekend when it came apparent that during similar protests on Sunday in Libya hundreds of people were wounded and over 60 were killed by Colonel Khadaffi’s security forces.
There is no news yet about a replacement for the final pre-season test days, but according to the Reuters Williams chairman Adam Parr told most teams have agreed they are to be held at Barcelona next week on March 8-11, as many teams do not want to relocate their whole team plus equipment to Valencia or Portimao. All teams will be attending a FOTA meeting later today in Barcelona, and a statement is expected later in the evening.
The decision was the only right decision, it would not have been appropriate for Formula One, or any other sport for that matter, to go to Bahrain where the peaceful protests of the Bahraini people, who are simply fighting for more democracy, are answered with bullets and violence.
Two Grands prix have been postponed in the 60-year history of Formula One: in 1985 the Belgium Grand Prix was postponed after the freshly laid tarmac disintegrated during free practice, and in 1995 the Pacific Grand Prix in Aida. Japan, was postponed due to a major earthquake.
The official start of the 2011 Formula One season is thus postponed until March 27, when the Formula one circus is expected in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix.