The Bahrain Grand Prix is in the books, and Formula One dodged a bullet. Or maybe that should be a Molotov cocktail.
After weathering a storm of worldwide criticism for its decision to go ahead with the grand prix in the Gulf Kingdom, despite ongoing anti-government, pro-democracy protests, F1 escaped without anyone involved in the sport getting hurt. Well, barely.
Some Force India team members were caught up in an impromptu protest late last Wednesday after leaving the track. While they emerged unhurt, a Molotov cocktail landed uncomfortably close to their van as they made their way back to their hotel from the circuit. Two team personnel were allowed to fly home after the close call.
In the race, defending double world champion Sebastian Vettel drove his Red Bull to a 3.333 second win over 2007 titlist Kimi Räikkönen of Lotus. Räikkönen's teammate Romain Grosjean was third. Vettel's first win in four 2012 starts puts him in the championship lead with 53 points, four better than McLaren's Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull's Mark Webber is third with 48. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
While no one attached to F1 was hurt, on Saturday the body of a man reported to have been arrested by security forces during a Friday protest was found.
In a Saturday briefing in the Bahrain paddock with selected F1 reporters, Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile president Jean Todt declined to comment about the death. Todt did say that he didn't feel F1 would wear a black eye for racing in Bahrain, insisting that the brand could withstand the flurry of stories that portrayed the sport and race in a bad light – stories, he insisted, that did not reflect the reality of Bahrain.
The man who ultimately made the decision to race in Bahrain went on to explain that protests are allowed in democratic countries, and sometimes people feel uncomfortable about them. Oddly, he also likened the ongoing clashes between pro-democracy protesters and security forces in Bahrain to violence at soccer matches. Human rights groups estimate that about 60 anti-government protesters have been killed in Bahrain since the unrest began in February 2011. Last year, the F1 race was postponed and later cancelled due to the pro-democracy movement.
It's also a bit strange that Todt would mention democracy at all, since it appears that exercising any sort of dissenting opinion inside the F1 paddock is perilous at best.
F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone has said on many occasions that F1 runs best as a dictatorship and democracy has no pace in the paddock. Remember, this is the man who once identified Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as someone who could get things done. He later called it a misunderstanding and insisted he wasn't using Hitler as a positive example.
In Bahrain, Force India may have felt the pointy end of that world view. The team was nowhere to be seen on the television screens during Saturday's qualifying a day after it decided to skip Friday's second practice session following the Molotov cocktail incident.
The international feed is controlled by Ecclestone's Formula One Management, which supplies all of the images for the broadcast. The sport's commercial boss also decides which countries host F1 races and had insisted emphatically that the Bahrain Grand Prix should happen.
Although Force India's Nico Hülkenberg was the driver who put up the early fast lap in the first qualifying session, his car was only seen on the screen for little more than a split second as a fleeting speck in the distance, with the director focused on other competitors. Teams looking for television exposure will often go out first in a qualifying session because they know the director needs to show action on track to keep fans happy.
While it's usually tough to put in a competitive result early, unless there are highly changeable conditions, teams will sacrifice a lap time because they need to be seen on television to keep their sponsors happy.
There's also no excuse for missing a fast lap, because the television crew would have seen Hülkenberg's progress on F1's sophisticated timing screens, which indicate the quickest driver on the circuit using telltale purple numbers. The timing data is a key tool that helps the director decide which car should appear on air.
Instead of the quick Force India driver, the television screens showed Marussia's Charles Pic for an entire lap, easily knowing the only times that the rookie would possibly beat in the session were that of his sister car, driven by Timo Glock, and the pair of dismal HRTs. His lap was more than three seconds off Hülkenberg's pace.
In the end, Pic started 19th of 24 cars but only because two drivers — Pastor Maldonado of Williams and Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher — were both given five-place penalties for changing their gearboxes.
Hülkenberg's teammate, Paul di Resta, went all the way through to the third and final qualifying session and ended the process 10th on the starting grid. But it was difficult to follow the Scot's progress, considering he appeared on the television screens during the broadcast of the three qualifying sessions for a grand total of zero seconds. Zip. Nil. None.
Even when the pair of Force India drivers appeared first on track during the second qualifying session, the international feed remained focused on the other teams' garages or drivers knocked out of the process walking back to their hospitality areas.
Although di Resta did not complete a lap in the final session, he did go out on track, even if the television feed didn't reflect that fact.
While Ecclestone told reporters after the session that the television coverage also missed two other drivers, that is simply not true. A review of the session clearly showed that every driver appeared on screen either in or out of the car, except for the Force India pairing.
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