Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chaos versus Stability: Racing in the Headlines for All the Wrong Reasons

In racing, it’s almost never a good thing to be in the news. Maybe your series generating a sports headline isn’t so bad, but to be at the top of the mainstream news? In motorsports, that can only mean disaster.

Such was the case this morning when the banner headline read “Body found as Bahrain Grand Prix tensions mount.”

It's been said there is no such thing as bad publicity. Many involved with F1 this weekend might beg to differ...

While the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup campaign rolls relatively quietly into Kansas, on the other side of the world the drivers and crews of Formula 1 are likely more concerned about their personal safety than any worries about how they’ll perform in the next race. This weekend in Bahrain, those in the trenches of F1 find themselves immersed in volatile and dangerous waters of political conflict and national unrest.

Amidst protests over the country’s rulers, the Bahraini government has responded with violent crackdowns that have focused critical international attention on the small island nation located in the Gulf of Bahrain off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

The conflict has had an impact on Formula 1 long before this weekend. Pre-season testing scheduled for the Bahrain track before the 2011 season was cancelled, and the 2011 season itself was scheduled to open with the Bahrain Grand Prix. The conflicts drove a postponement of the race to October, and eventually its cancellation.

The dubious decision to return to Bahrain in 2012 is playing out just as many within the F1 realm had feared: the sport is now the focus of countless “why are they racing there?” editorials. Unfortunately, there is no good answer.

For the race teams that are obligated to compete, it is an extremely uncomfortable situation. The Force India team completely skipped the second pre-race practice sessions, with rumors whispered that the team felt it was safer to be ensconced in the security of their lodging than to be at the track.

For NASCAR fans, such chaos is unimaginable. Each year the stock car schedule is released with a stable predictability that seldom yields a surprise. And disruptions at NASCAR events are generally limited to rain. In fact, the most exotic aberration on the Sprint Cup Series schedule came in 1998 with a summer Daytona race postponement to October 17 due to smoke from wildfires that were raging in central Florida.

The simple postponement of a night race due to wildfire smoke is a major disruption in NASCAR's book. This weekend F1 is rewriting the book on racing upheavals.

The fact that NASCAR racing is a domestic US product certainly works in that entity’s favor as far as being able to maintain control. For Formula 1, treading on the world stage sometimes places the series into logistical and cultural upheavals.

But in the case of the Bahrain situation and the entirely dubious decision to proceed with the event this weekend, Formula 1’s leaders appear to have recklessly - and foolishly - placed their teams and the sport’s very reputation into jeopardy. Instead of a glamorous grand prix held in an impossibly rich environment, the Bahrain Grand Prix has morphed into a conundrum with no positive outcome imaginable.