Dazzling start dimmed by Bahrain cloud


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The Independent Online

With three different winning drivers and marques, the 2012 Formula One season could scarcely have got off to a better start. Jenson Button won for McLaren in Australia; Fernando Alonso won for Ferrari in Malaysia; Nico Rosberg won for Mercedes in China.

That is a sign that the FIA has got the new rules just right, as the ban on double diffusers and trick exhaust-gas throttle systems has levelled the playing field. Rosberg might have triumphed at high speed on Sunday as the cards finally fell his and Mercedes' way after years of struggle, but behind him the sight of a weaving snake of nine or more cars battling over second place had television commentators and spectators across the globe screaming as never before. This was how top-line motor racing should be.

However, far from being able to move on to the next race on the schedule, celebrating the thrill of sporting contest, F1 is now holding its breath. As the teams' foot soldiers, the long-suffering mechanics and logistics crews, began breaking camp in Shanghai on Sunday night, ready for the fast trek to another race just a week later, an unspoken question sat like an elephant in the room: what is going to happen in Bahrain?

All the speculation about the next race's future came to an inelegant end on Friday in China, when the FIA president, Jean Todt, issued an intransigent statement confirming that it would happen and that the FIA was the unquestioned master of the F1 universe. The FIA, however, also left itself sufficient wriggle room to throw some mud at the commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone's FOM/CVC outfit and its own advisers on the ground in Bahrain – meaning, the ruling Al Khalifa family. It was another unedifying episode in the sport's self-centred journey.

Now we are approaching crunch time, and nobody really knows what to expect. Bahrain's rulers have fought hard to stave off international criticism and use the race as a political tool to portray their country as a stable and secure place to do business, but it is inconceivable that the repressed Shias will not use the event as a means of showcasing their dissent to the same global audience. Firebombs and teargas returned on Friday, in response to the FIA statement, and there is talk of three days of protest over the weekend. It remains to be seen what form such protest might take, and how close it might get to the Formula One event.

All that can be said with certainty is that Todt and the FIA will, ultimately, squarely be held responsible if things go wrong and innocent F1 sports people are caught up in the kingdom's internal unrest.

The FIA has made the decision for everyone, and now it must be prepared to accept whatever consequences that might bring.