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Bahrain tests? No problem, says F1

2013-10-09 09:21

DUELLING IN THE DESERT: Mercedes' driver Lewis Hamilton and McLaren's Sergio Perez drive at the Bahrain International Circuit in Manama on April 21, 2013 during the Bahrain F1 GP. Now it's testing time. Image: AFP

ALAN BALDWIN

Pre-season F1 testing - especially with the new V6 turbo engines - for 2014 is vital and Bahrain, scene of riots in recent years - is really the only option...

SEOUL, South Korea - Formula 1 teams say they have no qualms about scheduling crucial pre-season tests in Bahrain in February 2014 since the restive Gulf kingdom's '13 GP went ahead without incident.

The 2011 race had to be cancelled, due to civil unrest and the crushing of an anti-government uprising that cost at least 35 lives, and some rights activists have since urged teams and sponsors to stay away. Teams have argued in their defence that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone draws up the calendar and they are contractually obliged to race wherever he decides.

However, they do have a choice when it comes to testing venues and there were ready-made alternatives to Bahrain in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

10th ANNIVERSARY DUE

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, whose team is half-owned by Bahrain's Mumtalakat sovereign wealth fund, said attitudes had evolved since the height of the unrest. He told Reuters: "I think people are relaxed about going there based on their experience of this year."

Bahrain circuit authorities said last weekend, during the Korean GP, that the Sakhir track would host pre-season tests from February 19-22 and February 27-March 2 2014 - which will see the 10th anniversary of the first race in Bahrain - and organisers are planning a floodlit day-to-night event to emulate the Abu Dhabi GP.

The 2012 race was seen as a public relations own-goal for Bahrain's rulers, coming against the televised backdrop of security forces firing teargas in streets and villages while protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs. The 2013 GP in April passed largely without incident, despite opposition rallies and regular skirmishes out of sight of most F1 visitors.

The state news agency BNA reported on Monday (Oct 7) that nine Bahrainis had been jailed for life for forming a militant group, manufacturing explosives and plotting attacks aimed at destabilising the kingdom.

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Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said he was not aware of any contingency plan for the tests should unrest flare up again. "It's not been a major topic, it's not been discussed, so I hope we can have a quiet time there. There have been assurances about conditions there. It was part of the discussion that has gone on."

Teams and engine makers say they need to test in the Middle East to guarantee the hot conditions they will not find in Europe at that time of year. With a radically new V6 turbocharged engine being introduced, the manufacturers cannot afford to lose any of the limited testing time available to bad weather.

"From the purely technical perspective, Bahrain is a more representative circuit," Brawn added. "We can test there, we prefer to test there. It's the best, most suitable, track at that time of the year."

Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said the decision had been led by the engine makers - Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari - and smaller teams such as her Swiss-based outfit had to fall in line. "If the tests are mainly meant for the engine, to have the right conditions to test that engine, then you don't have a choice," she said.
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