_“The foremost art of kings is the ability to endure hatred”_ – *Seneca The Great*
This week’s column is going to be a slightly tricky one to write, as by the time this gets published on the site, the F1 landscape might have fundamentally shifted and may not include a highly controversial trip to the Kingdom of Bahrain. However, at the time of writing, that decision has not yet been taken, and Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s own dictatorial force, has most recently been quoted as saying, “It’s really not up to me to decide whether it should go ahead or not. It’s up to the people in Bahrain to decide. At this time, they are not cancelling the event, so presumably they are happy.”
F1 and ethics have never been the simplest of bedfellows, and it is with an uncomfortable moral weight on their shoulders that the teams prepare for the back-to-back races in China and Bahrain. Of course the sport itself can argue that it generally positions itself and acts as a unifying force for good, bringing people together, rather than any kind moral guardian of sorts, and as a whole that party-line can probably be supported with facts.
On the flipside, China itself has long had a questionable record on human rights, along with concerns about conditions in Abu Dhabi. The Indian, South Korean and Brazilian races as well have tended to uncomfortably highlight the poverty of the surrounding populace with the mega-bucks ostentation of the F1 crowd in the starkest of contrasts over the course of the events. Hey, whilst we’re at it, Texas is the state with the worst record on capital punishment in the US, and where are we going in November? But, as a rule, the good has, at least in the eyes of the controllers of the sport, outweighed the negatives. At what point though does the moral compass say “enough”?
The answer as to where that line exists in many people’s minds, including those of the majority of teams (on the quiet, don’t tell Bernie) lies with the race in Bahrain. Until now the teams and sponsors have kept publicly silent, though an undercurrent of discomfort is very evident. The race was cancelled in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings last year after more than 40 people died, many after being tortured following Shia-led protests against the Sunni ruling family.
Last Friday, security forces fired teargas at supporters of the jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for the past 60 days and the political situation in the country remains hugely tense and unstable. Hosting the Grand Prix itself is a matter of prestige for the ruling family, and a chance for them to show the outside world that “everything is okay” within the country. However it also provides an uncomfortably obvious target for protests and demonstrations, bringing the safety of both teams and spectators at the race under serious scrutiny. If F1 is the catalyst for another crushing military move by the Bahraini government against it’s own people, it will be mud that will be especially hard for the sport to wash off…
*MY NASCAR EDUCATION BEGINS WITH MARTINSVILLE*
In happier news, as promised I’ve shelled out the cash and got my first taste of NASCAR this season with the race in Martinsville and I must say that it was fascinating for me to watch from the perspective of someone brought up on F1, if not so much for the racing itself.
Some of the things that struck me –
* Wow, you guys are patient. I guess that’s good news for me and this column!? I understand that this wasn’t even a particularly long race…but really, it lasted a while. I was reminded a little bit of the six hour endurance races I used to go to with my dad at Brands Hatch and Silverstone over here in the UK. The start was great…the end was great…but really, do we need all of that stuff in the middle? It’s interesting actually – I think in Europe with our sports in general (except for cricket), they’re more short, sharp, shock events that demand your focus for the duration. The US style sports (American Football, Baseball, NASCAR) seem to be longer lasting, more social events that you can more or less drift in and out of, and that have more frequent breaks…am I wrong?
* Overtaking is less of a dramatic event in NASCAR than in F1, both in style and content. Now I understand that some of you may say “well there’s not enough of it in F1” but when you get overtaken in F1 it’s a significant event that more often than not will majorly impact the result of the race. It’s usually dramatic, with locked brakes diving down the inside of the corner, something to be defended, attempted – do-or-die stuff. In NASCAR it really struck me that it kind of doesn’t matter if someone nudges past you as it’s likely you can draft back past them at some future point. It only really matters in the last segment of the race…
* Another thing hitting home was that to get the most out of NASCAR and really to understand the passion it creates, I need to get myself along to a race. From watching on the small screen it really looks to me like being there in the tight confines of an oval track would be an almost overwhelming sensory experience – smells, sights, sounds – wow, it genuinely does look like an amazing day out. To be honest, many of my friends never understood F1 until they went to a race and then they were hooked. I’m kind of suspecting the same is true of NASCAR, but I will carry on with my mission!
*THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR – CHINA AND BAHRAIN*
Okay, so I’ve kept my side of the bargain, so I’m hoping you’ll do the same and check out what happens in our back-to-back race sequence in China and Bahrain (though as I stated earlier, let’s see if the latter actually happens). Here are a couple of pointers to keep your eyes and ears on over the course of the two weekends –
* McLaren’s in-team battle – it may seem all smiles on the surface, but beneath that there are simmering tensions and complex emotional scenarios at work as the battle for dominance between Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button continues. In what so far seems the quickest car this season, two of the sports best racers and most competitive individuals are locked in a fascinating tussle. It’s classic fare – Hamilton, super-quick, aggressive and emotional versus Button, smooth, controlled and calculating. The last two winners of the Chinese Grand Prix? Hamilton and Button. Choose your side well!
* Can Red Bull strike back – the dominant team for the past two seasons and home to F1’s greatest design genius, Adrian Newey (the only man to still design his cars with a pencil and drawing board, shunning computers, but still by far F1’s most successful designer) and current World Champion Sebastian Vettel have been on the back foot by their exalted standards in the first two races of the season. Can they hit back before the circus gets to Europe?
* Can Fernando Alonso keep producing miracles – the age old adage states that the quickest car wins in F1. Not the case, or certainly not so far this season. Fernando Alonso has been outperforming the extremely limited capabilities of the almost undriveable 2012 Ferrari to come into the Chinese Grand Prix with a win and the lead of the championship. He can’t do it again…can he?
* Watch the weather – okay, so were I a betting man I’d put my house, cat, wife on it being sunny in Bahrain, but China could be a different kettle of the proverbial fishy stuff. It’s rained on race weekend there before, it might rain again, and if it does in the words of F1 stalwart Murray Walker “anything can happen, and it probably will”.
Enjoy the racing folks, and as always your thoughts, feedback and feelings are always appreciated!
“Contact Andy Hollis”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37997/
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