The 2013 Bahrain Grand prix may be going ahead next weekend, but will not do so with everyone involved seemingly as happy about it as Bernie Ecclestone.
While the FIA has refused to confirm its stance on the political situation within the Gulf state, and the teams admitting that they will go wherever the sport's ringmaster leads them, the multinationals that bankroll F1 don't appear so comfortable going with the flow.
Bahrain has been the subject of pro-democracy demonstrations since early 2011, when the 'Arab Spring' uprising spread across the region with greater 'success' in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Protestors object to the continuation of the grand prix, saying that F1's presence is a symbol of their oppression thanks to its close links to the ruling family.
Following the awkward situation twelve months ago, where the race went ahead despite reports of continuing unrest being put down by security forces, sponsors are scaling back their financial involvement for this one race, and instead transfer their regional marketing activities to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix towards the end of the campaign.
"Notwithstanding the trouble in Bahrain, the Abu Dhabi race is more interesting for sponsors," sponsorship consultant Jim Wright told Reuters
, “Abu Dhabi has taken a lot away from Bahrain, [and] the timing, at the end of the year, is also an advantage for Abu Dhabi. Now, with the start of spring [in Europe], sponsors have an opportunity to take people to races in Barcelona and Monte Carlo next month."
Several notable sponsors have already confirmed that their presence will be significantly reduced, or even invisible, in Bahrain, even to the extent of removing branding from teams, cars and drivers. Others, including McLaren title sponsor Vodafone, are opting for regional brands instead of their own.
Bahrain pays around $40m a year to secure its place on the F1 schedule, making it one of the biggest contributors to FOM coffers, but, while the circuit claims that ticket sales have picked up in recent weeks, there have been markedly fewer takers for corporate hospitality packages. Global F1 sponsor UBS has confirmed that it will not host any clients at the race next weekend.
Friday witnessed a peaceful march in opposition to the grand prix, but there is no chance of the race being cancelled as it was in 2001, when the sport reacted to the quelling of the initial uprising with multiple fatalities, the exact number of which varies wildly depending on which side is asked. Despite talks resuming between the government and protest groups, there appears to have been little positive advance on the situation, and confrontations between the two sides continue on a regular basis.
Ecclestone has said publically that that he has no concerns about staging the race, and played down the significance of it becoming a target for anti-government protesters [ see separate story
], and no team has yet spoken out about having to take part.
"I don't see any problems going to Bahrain, like it was last year," insisted Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost, whose Faenza-based operation is backed by three prominent Abu Dhabi sponsors, "I'm looking forward to going there. I think it's very important to race over there. F1 is entertainment. We should go there, we should do our race, and we should be concentrated on that. We should not be involved in politics - the political side and political topics should be solved by someone else."