At last the Bahrain Grand Prix has come and gone, and Formula 1 can concentrate on doing what it does best - racing.
However, before the powers-that-be (and teams) pat themselves on the back for having pulled off a great sporting success - from that perspective, arguably the best grand prix of the eight held on the desert island since 2004 - they would do well to repeat the phrase that begins 'There but for the grace...', for the overall consensus of opinion in the paddock was that F1 had experienced a narrow escape. Again.
The sport had no right racing in Korea at the end of 2010 on a circuit still not, 18 months on, up to world standards, and the sport had no right racing in Bahrain last weekend. The promoters of the Korean GP were nowhere near ready to host a world-class event, while those in Bahrain unashamedly politicised the event through its slogan UniF1ed - One Nation in Celebration, which the world and his dog knew not only to be untrue, but to be blatant political propaganda.
Just as McLaren would have every right to demand a full refund of its $100m 'Spygate' fine should the sport's governing body, the FIA, refuse to take further action against Caterham for what High Court Judge Arnold found to be 'opportunistic copying' of Force India's intellectual property - the matter moves to the next stage in both Italian and British courts within the next few weeks - so Turkey would have every right to demand a return of its ($2.5m) fine levied in the wake of the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix.
Back then Turkey's ruling politicians chose to make a statement by having Mehmet Ali Talat present the trophy to the race winner (Felipe Massa), introducing the politician as President of the Turkish Cypriot 'state' - an entity recognised only by Turkey.
At the time a FIA spokesperson said: "Political neutrality is fundamental to the FIA's role as the governing body of international motorsport. No compromise or violation of this neutrality is acceptable," which correlates with Article 1 of the FIA Statutes, which states: The FIA shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.
UniF1ed slogan © LAT
By permitting last weekend's race to go ahead under the UniF1ed banner - ignorance could not be feigned given that every baggage belt in the airport carried the message - the FIA stands accused of violating its own statutes, and one wonders how its Senate, constituted to 'handle issues relating to management and general policy of the FIA that cannot be covered by the Committee or either of the World Councils' views the matter.
Whether the race achieved its primary objective (from a Bahraini perspective), namely to 'build bridges', as the island's Crown Prince had stated on the Friday before the race, is debatable, for the PR coming out of the weekend was absolutely atrocious, with virtually every broadsheet - in whatever language - highlighting the kingdom's divisions.
Writing in The Telegraph on Monday, John Yates, former UK Head of Counter-Terrorism and recently appointed senior police advisor to the government of Bahrain after resigning his British post in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, said he was "bewildered by the level of criticism aimed at a nation that has acknowledged its mistakes, but has plans in place to put things right".
Precisely therein lies the rub: Formula 1 has no place in Bahrain until said plans are implemented, in full. The sport is not a peacemaker, nor can it afford to be tarred with Bahrain's political brush, and to suggest, as did circuit boss circuit boss Zayed Alzayani, that other countries - such as Britain, which last August suffered crime-driven unrest - have similar problems is utterly disingenuous: their events are not government sponsored with the specific aim of presenting a respectable face of an oppressive regime to the world.
After all, as F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone regularly points out, the British Grand Prix does not benefit from public funding, and hence its place on F1's endangered list, and drawing comparisons with Brazil's street violence smacks of pure desperation, for the South American country's security problem is rooted in crime not politics.
Ecclestone with BIC boss Zayed Al-Zayani © LAT
Bahrain appointed a global firm of PR practitioners to gloss the glum, and if McLaren/Turkey consider themselves due a refund, so, too, should Bahrain, as said folk seemed unable to comprehend that F1 gives not one iota whether protesters or police are the culpable parties; simply that the island is caught up in civil strife, and for one weekend F1 was seen to be slap-bang in the middle of it.
Why the spin-doctors were even granted admission to the media centre was beyond the grasp of journalists, who have for many years viewed the area as a safe haven, one with strictly controlled admission from which even photographers are excluded save during media conferences. Yet in Bahrain the sight of a bunch of slick-looking, smooth-talking double-barrell-named spin-doctors strolling about the place as though they owned it stuck in the craw. As with UniF1ed, a precedent was set, and it stinks...
Post-race, one team principal was quoted as saying the media "had politicised" the race, but that is about as exaggerated as reports of a dozen or so armoured cars patrolling the 30 kilometre journey from the capital Manama to the circuit. If anybody politicised the race it was the promoters. The media had not, after all, coined the event's UniF1ed slogan, nor One Nation in Celebration, nor even suggested a political slant, merely reported the angle dreamed up by the pony-tailed brigade.
Forget not that on Friday Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, whose project the circuit and race is, politicised the race by stating, "Cancelling the race just empowers extremists. For those of us trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities and celebrate our nation as an idea that is positive not divisive".
That was certainly not a figment of journalists' imagination, and for reporting it all accredited journalists were post-race rewarded with red caps emblazoned with the UniF1ed slogan!
The massive security presence at the race did Bahrain no favours, either, and while media reports were chronically dramatised - smacking of Rambo reporting - the fact is journalists and team personnel were nervous throughout the weekend. Separate incidents involving two teams, a journalist and even a senior member of Ecclestone's staff did nothing to alleviate fears despite no F1 folk directly experiencing violence.
The atmosphere surrounding the event was one of anxiety rather than anticipation of the sporting spectacle ahead, with this angst being clear to see on virtually every face in the paddock. Where talk is more usually about tyre degradation and laptimes, in Sakhir it was all about the troubles, with the confirmed death on Friday night of a protester, a father of five, adding considerably to the feelings of apprehension.
Jean Todt with Bahrain's Crown Prince © LAT
"I think this race should continue because it is indeed a very big event for this country. It is important economically and socially," the Crown Prince added during his media briefing, and here he must have been rather disappointed, for hoteliers across the full grading scale complained about low occupancy rates, while to state the grandstands were far from full is a massive understatement.
Where in the past the airport was packed to capacity from Thursday through Monday, last weekend it at times resembled a desert. The traditional congestion, particularly on Sunday evening/Monday morning, was conspicuous by its absence, as were massive queues at immigration/security followed by delayed departures. This year airport formalities were the work of a moment, while 'Delayed' signs on terminal screens were a rare sight - and it is not as though hordes of additional staff had been appointed to handle a massive influx.
All of which suggests that the race was far from the tourist magnet it was expected to be, a fact borne out by empty grandstands. The main stand was at most 60 per cent full; most others absolutely empty, while helicopter shots showed vast open car parks. Two hours after the race a 45-seater door-to-door circuit-hotel luxury coach laid on for ticket/pass holders - the only such vehicle for 30 minutes - had but eight passengers.
Yes, the exclusive Paddock Club was filled, but not by team guests - sources suggest those with the chutzpah to request passes to what is normally a $4000/head hospitality facility offering the best in wining, dining, viewing and perks, were asked a single question: "How many would you like, sir?"
When questioned immediately after the race about the distinct lack of spectators, Alzayani was adamant the race attracted 27,800 spectators, with almost 100,000 bodies passing through the stiles over the three days, to allegedly record the event's second-best attendance to date. He further stated the circuit has a capacity of 34,000 - strangely 5,000 down on the figure given this column by the former CEO in 2008 - so somehow the maths does not stack up. Subtracting Sunday's figure from his alleged total leaves 72,200, which, when spread over Friday/Saturday, pans out at 36,100 average, or 106 per cent to capacity.
When confronted with questions about empty stands - and told photographic evidence was to hand - Alzayani aggressively suggested, "Bahrainis do not watch races from the grandstands, they watch on the big screens behind the stands", which, of course, begs the question why people would shell out for grandstands, then forsake them in favour of hanging about the vending areas.
"Maybe Bahrainis have too much money," was the retort, neatly overlooking the fact that Bahrain's civil unrest is driven by poverty. Also unanswered is: if that be the Bahrainis' modus operandi, why no such behavior in previous years, when the grandstands were filled?
The Sakhir circuit at night © LAT
Whatever, the barren stands, an empty airport, grumbling hoteliers and a lack of Paddock Club patronage by the teams point to a disappointing grand prix from a commercial perspective - even if all accept that was hardly the primary aim of the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.
As the podium ceremony played out and F1 folk looked forward to the in-season test session at Mugello, demonstration runs in Fiorano on May 8 by Jacques Villeneuve in the Ferrari 126C as driven by his father Gilles exactly 30 years ago, and May's schedule of Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix, the overriding sentiment in the media centre was that the Bahrain Grand Prix had been a sporting success - particularly for Red Bull Racing and Lotus, but a disaster in every other respect - public relations, commercial and political - for its hosts.
Of greater concern, though, was the damage to the image of Formula 1 worldwide after this most autocratic of sports allowed itself to be exploited politically in contravention of its own statutes - allegedly in the name of democracy on a desert island it did not know the existence of a decade ago.
In the process F1 reinforced global perceptions that it is none other than an uncaring enterprise intent on grabbing money for the majority owner of its commercial rights, the CVC partners' vulture fund - which is where moral culpability for the event ultimately lies.
In the final analysis, F1 had no business being in Bahrain - and ducked a bullet for three straight days; for that it should be truly thankful and not patting itself on the back.