Ecclestone faces potentially torrid time at Bahrain Formula One

F1 supremo might be protecting his interests as protestors threaten to target event this weekend

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 4:05am

It's going to be, as Alex Ferguson so memorably once put it, "squeaky bum time" this weekend. It won't be the 71-year-old manager of Manchester United clenching his buttocks holding on to an injury-time lead, but the 82-year-old ring master of Formula One.

Bernie Ecclestone is a worried man heading into this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix. Pro-democracy protesters have threatened to target the event to bring attention to their cause. The way they have been treated in the last two years has already been enough to shine an unflattering light on Ecclestone and the sport for continuing to race there after the 2011 cancellation, despite the unrest.

Last weekend, a car exploded in the commercial district. More radical protesters have vowed to target the event for violent protest, vowing a week of "volcanic flames" in Manama, the capital. Some protesters burnt race tickets and a crowd was recently dispersed by police firing tear gas after chanting "your race is a crime".

Into this predictable mayhem steps Bernie the peacemaker. He has offered to speak to the protesters, told them he sympathises with them. But he has been quick to offer some typically quirky Ecclestone philosophy. He has reportedly told the protesters that they shouldn't try and throw the country into chaos. "You are better off having control when the country is strong and respected worldwide rather than capture something nobody wants" he says. "Who wants to capture Syria at the moment?"

The best-case scenario for Ecclestone and the teams now they have arrived is to keep a low profile, run the race and then get out quickly. The portents aren't good, though. You may remember last year a protester died and a Force India team bus had a run-in with a petrol bomb. The presence of F1 doesn't seem to be helping the country stay strong.

There may be some red faces among the rulers and the F1 family if the computer hacking group Anonymous is to be believed. It has threatened to expose personal data of anyone who supports the race. That might concentrate a few millionaire minds.

This column has long argued the race shouldn't take place in these conditions, and more important people have also spoken out. British MPs have said the sport is "driving over the rights of Bahraini people". Maybe Ecclestone's new conciliatory tone may be genuine; he could of course be trying to protect his investment. Either way, he is determined the show must go on.

Assuming it does, the on-track action will be fascinating. After China, the talk was all about the T word - tyres. Their performance, or perhaps lack of it, last weekend dominated the race and the Saturday action, too.

Pirelli has delivered the tyres that F1 wanted. The super soft tyres were blisteringly fast for a handful of laps before they, well, blistered. The harder "option" tyres were slower but lasted much longer. In qualifying, some decided not to bother in Q3 so as to be on a tyre they preferred for the race start.

During the race itself there wasn't a whole lot of racing until Vettel and Hamilton clashed over third place right at the end. Even that was a tyre-engineered event, with the German changing to the super softs for the last few laps. Generally it was a game of tyre poker, with drivers having to ask permission to go racing. "Do we want to fight?" Jenson Button asked at one point.

Certainly fiddling with the make-up of the black stuff over recent seasons has spiced up the spectacle and helped keep the sport competitive. But you wonder whether it might have gone a bit too far this time. Certainly the team bosses seem to think so. "Excruciating" was the post race comment of McLaren's Martin Whitmarch, while Christian Horner of Red Bull called it "complicated". He admitted that drivers were often at 70 per cent of their ability so as not to upset the tyres.

Perhaps it's time for Bernie to have a word with Pirelli, if he's not too busy with other pressing matters.