The Bahrain conundrum – the politics or the race?

BahrainVodafoneMcLarenMercedesAs I walked into the Sakhir paddock last week in the build up to the Bahrain Grand Prix, I was wrestling with a dilemma.

I usually send a piece over to the paper I write for on Thursday, previewing what is likely to unfold on track over the weekend.

The pieces are generally fairly straightforward to write. Based on past form, driver comments and a fair amount of guesswork and speculation, you try to predict who has the best chance of the win, what the tyres are likely to do, who is likely to struggle and so on and so forth.

It should have been just as straightforward ahead of this race. But it wasn’t. As much as people accuse Formula One of being in a bubble, we’re all aware of what’s going on outside the Formula One paddock.

We’re all aware there are political problems in the country. We all know of the pro-democracy unrest, part of the Arab Spring revolution, that forced the cancellation of the 2011 race and we all know the controversial circumstances under which the race went ahead last year.

I cannot speak for Formula One as a whole, but with protests also taking place around this year’s race, personally, I was struggling with what to focus on in my preview piece ahead of the race. It would have been wilfully ignorant of me to focus only on the race.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it would have been turning a blind eye to what’s been going on in Bahrain, but given the headlines the Grand Prix made last year — not for the racing but for the protests – the politics had to be mentioned.

But on the other hand, here I was — a sports reporter on my first visit to the country with its political problems, the complexities of which I was certainly not qualified to comment on.

I spoke to several journalists who had been here in 2012, just trying to get a sense of whether the climate was calmer this year, whether Formula One was more relaxed heading to Bahrain compared to last year.

Most said it seemed to be calmer with Bahraini politics not dominating the news agenda as they had a year ago. The worsening civil war in Syria and the Boston bombings were making headlines and there didn’t seem to be the hype and hysteria in the build up to this year’s race that we saw last year.

That’s not to say that the situation in and around Manama was any better or worse compared to a year ago. But it was impossible for them to accurately gauge the difference too.

Because you see, Formula One journalists tend to jet in and out of the country hosting the race and most of our time is spent at the track.

We arrive on the Wednesday night, some on Thursday morning when media activities at the track kick off, and we’re usually out of the country on the Sunday night or Monday morning.

The only time we aren’t at the track or the hotel is spent travelling between track and hotel. Take this year for instance. Yes, I had read media reports of the protests but despite having been there, I didn’t actually see any.

We were, of course, living in Manama. The protests were mostly taking place in the outlying villages and life seemed to be carrying on as usual in the capital. One night I went out for a bite with a colleague and the restaurant we ate at was full.

Again, that’s not to say that protests aren’t taking place. I’m not saying the country doesn’t have its problems. But I can understand the Formula One media’s reluctance to get involved.

The main opposition bloc has welcomed the race as an opportunity to draw the global media’s attention to their demand for democratic reform and we have to guard against the danger of someone taking advantage of our presence to further their own agenda.

Because the fact is all parties involved – from the country’s rulers, to the race organisers, to the opposition, to the rights organisations – have their own agendas.

In the end, I did touch upon the political angle in my piece. But I refrained from comparing the political mood to that of 2012 because I wasn’t here last year and I just didn’t know.

It’s not that I don’t care about what’s going on. But quite simply — and as I told a colleague on my way to the track one morning — we come here for five nights in a year and it would be very irresponsible of me to fall prey to an agenda and write about things I didn’t understand.

Image courtesy of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

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