Money talks as F1 show goes on regardless

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Amid the protests and the prayers, Vettel claims pole position from Hamilton

Bahrain

If you closed your eyes and put everything that has happened over the past week out of your mind, it was possible to imagine that it was business as usual yesterday.

Under the balmy atmosphere of a pallid sky and palm trees lit by fluorescent red bands, the paddock last night was a long way from the Molotov cocktails and tear gas to the north. And if you ignored the hushed conversations, you would not have known that controversy has stalked the event from the moment the 2012 calendars listed it as returning to the world championship after cancellation of last year's event.

So why, when the decision to stage the race has brought almost universal condemnation from human rights activists, have sporting leaders such as the FIA president Jean Todt and commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone been so insistent on its return?

There is, inevitably, a financial element. It's believed that the $36million fee payable to CVC Capital Partners, whom Ecclestone represents, was placed in escrow and would become payable so long as the 2012 event went ahead. This year's fee, under the terms of a contract which always ramps up 10 per cent annually, is believed to be worth $40m. Thus the interested parties stood to lose $76m – 50 per cent payable to CVC, 50 per cent to the teams – if the race did not go ahead.

Then there is Todt's need to consider the concerns of allies within the FIA and their influence in the region, a potentially important factor when it comes to re-election.

Team bosses and drivers have been reluctant to comment on the political situation in Bahrain, and have been slated for it. But the simple fact is that the moment Todt confirmed last Friday in China that the race would happen, all were in their own ways contracted to participate regardless of their private feelings.

The teams have been protected from the raging international debateby their own trademark insularity. It has been suggested by cynics that they would only become aware of the outbreak of a third world war if they arrived at the airport on a Sunday night to discover that all flights had been cancelled.

For Formula One it has been life as normal, with the exception of Force India where a threatened mutiny was quelled by their deputy team principal, Bob Fernley, on Friday after two incidents on successive nights when team vehicles had been caught up in the aftermath of incidents between extremists and police on the motorway to Manama.

Todt's implacable belief in the F1 brand and its importance in the Middle East, may yet cost him his job if his confidence in those advising him on security matters proves misplaced.

Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, the chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, admits that threat of disruption this afternoon is his greatest fear. "We have tried to be subtle in our security," he says.

Ahmed Al Mahri, a Formula One fan and a local Shia who works in banking, said: "We have heard the rumours of planned disruption, but hopefully the extremists will not accomplish that. They are so good with the media, they know just how to use the propaganda. But we had the Air Show late last year and nothing happened there, and we have the golf here and nothing is happening there."

He added: "F1 has created a lot of jobs for Bahrainis, created a lot of opportunities and raised the standard of life in Bahrain in the past eight years. It's marketed Bahrain. When you are in a position claiming that you want reform, that you want a better future, you don't fight to stop such an event, where your own people are the number one beneficiary from it."

Ironically, the race could rival last week's epic in China as the first eight drivers on the grid were covered by less than a second. Sebastian Vettel returned to form to beat Lewis Hamilton to pole position by a tenth of a second, with their respective Red Bull and McLaren team-mates Mark Webber and Jenson Button close behind.

Track hazards

During the 2000 German GP at Hockenham a man fired by Mercedes on health grounds waved a banner criticising the company as he walked on the track.

At Silverstone during the British Grand Prix in 2003, priest Neil Horan ran down the Hangar Straight amid cars moving at 200 mph exhorting spectators to read the Bible. He was jailed for two months.

The FIA take such incidents very seriously after the Welsh driver Tom Pryce was killed during the 1977 South African GP at Kyalami. He was hit in the face by a fire extinguisher when he collided with a young marshal who ran across the main straight to deal with the car of Pryce's team-mate, Renzo Zorzi.

David Tremayne

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