Thank goodness Formula 1 is producing the goods on the track at the moment. We are currently enjoying one of the most exciting and broadly competitive eras in the history of the sport. There are six world champions on the grid for 2012, and those challenging for maiden titles number the likes of Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg among their contingent; the supreme Red Bull has been pegged by McLaren; Ferrari are underperforming and Sauber are overperforming; ailing giants Lotus and Williams are beginning to rouse themselves.
Technically the sport has finally hit upon a formula that has legs, that will not lose novelty value as drivers and engineers become accustomed to the settings, and thus we should avoid the potential folly that comes along with such random stabs at increasing Formula 1’s entertainment value.
Times are good, and the sport’s followers are in forgiving mood. That’s handy for Formula 1’s grand overlord Bernie Ecclestone, who even by his own ruthless standards has been pushing his luck at the negotiating table recently.
In the latter half of 2011 he was casting doubt on the American race in Austin,
Texas, that is new to the calendar for 2012. There were then rumblings in autumn and through the winter about the costs paid by each circuit to host a Grand Prix; Korea were unhappy, Valencia too. And with the German race already being alternated between the Nurburgring and Hockenheim it wasn’t all that surprising to hear about the very real possibility of the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium alternating what would surely become the European Grand Prix, in light of Valencia’s demise, with the old Paul Ricard track in France. All this before Ecclestone even deigned to cast a glance at the looming Bahrain storm.
We have all come to terms with the fact that nothing gets Ecclestone’s gorged, bloated green heart pumping if it doesn’t ooze dollars; surely, though, he has crossed a line in Bahrain? That token gesture – the charade, the illusion that Ecclestone has some respect for the sports’ traditions and institutions – does mean something, however insignificant. The mask is slipping though, and might soon be dispensed with entirely.
If the sport was enduring a boring phase and people were fishing around for sticks with which to beat Formula 1’s top dogs, there be a lot more knives out for Ecclestone by now. Forget the human rights issues, you’d have people pointing out that we shouldn’t even be in Bahrain in the first place, because the circuit is an uninspired, dusty nonentity. Ecclestone’s ambitions might be equally greedy worldwide, but at least in India and America there is less of a feeling that the sport is the private plaything of royalty or top businessmen – those countries promise interesting track layouts in more dynamic surroundings (leading circuit designer Hermann Tilke clearly took out his mistakes on the Bahrain and China circuits) and greater potential for expanding the mass popularity of the sport.
On that issue, why is it only ever Tilke that Ecclestone commissions to design new circuits? Let's just say we loved everything about a man with a 'success' rate little higher than 50% - surely if Ecclestone is so big on penny-pinching then he should just give the job to some enthusiastic, nerdy amateur (ahem) who would snap his hand off for such an opportunity.
Perhaps, though, the situation is exactly the same in the USA and India as it is in Bahrain. In those former places at least, we tell ourselves, Ecclestone still condescends to hide that savage beast of avarice in the shadows. But money is money to Ecclestone, no matter its location; so it follows that civil unrest would simply be civil unrest, no matter its location. But would Formula 1 have followed a different course had we been in the US last weekend? Ecclestone could well have set himself up for a fall now, by trampling the sensibilities of one people he now has a precedent to follow or overturn if similar circumstances should arise anywhere else in the near future.