As a Grand Prix reporter time is often short. We travel the world and we don’t see as much of it as perhaps we should, bewitched as we are by the Formula 1 machines and people. Things have been even more complicated this year with COVID-19 restrictions.
Still, the idea of spending 10 days in Bahrain, was quite appealing, even if it is not exactly a tourist mecca. The thing about Bahrain is that at this time of year it ought to be a sunny place and so it is nice to be there when all is grey and cold at home. I was looking forward to having the chance to nose around a bit and discover the place a little more. I did do some tourism in the early years of the race, but never ventured to the south of the island, nor ever read anything about the things I saw back then.
I was fascinated to read that Bahrain is now proven to have been the capital city of the Dilmun civilisation. This was back in the Bronze Age, between 3,000 and 1,200 BC. It was, quite literally, the centre of the world at the time. This was all justified by learned treatises on how large and important the original city must have been, based on th frequency of burial mounds (and such things).
Anyway, after the first race in Bahrain this year there was a heap of additional work that had to be done, largely as a result of Romain Grosjean’s accident and it was not until Tuesday morning that I was able to take a deep breath and set off to spend the morning exploring the Southern Governate about which I knew very little. I soon discovered why. There is not much there. It’s largely desert with a few man-made bits and bobs including the Shaikh Isa Air Base, known to the Americans, so they say, as Shakey’s Pizza Air Base. There was the signpost to “Bahrain Defence Force” and a half-built Medical City and down at the southern tip, some man-made islands shaped like fish, to which I was not allowed access. It seems that one has to be a resident to visit. So I turned around and headed north again and turned off at some point and went in search of The Tree of Life – if only because it’s a great name.
Now you would think that finding a tree in the middle of a desert would be pretty easy thing to achieve, but the signs all stopped and what with the interesting yardangs and zeugens, the constant unmarked speed bumps (yes, really, in the desert!), the oil and gas wells and piping strewn everywhere, and needing to be aware of oncoming cars on your side of the road, I didn’t see any tree at all. I tried several times on the same roads and then different roads and found a closed Oil Museum and signs to the First Oil Well, but no tree of any import. At one point I found myself in danger of running out of fuel and so decided to quit and go back to Manama, because the irony of running out of petrol in the middle of an oil field seemed too preposterous to imagine. But after I found a petrol station I decided to go back and try again to find this mystical tree.
I never did find it and I wondered if perhaps it had met the fate of another famous desert tree, known at the Tree of the Ténéré, which stood in the desert near Agadez in Niger. The Ténéré Desert is part of the Sahara, covering about 150,000 square miles (which equates to about 380 miles long and wide). The Tree of the Ténéré was all on its own in the middle of this emptiness. One night it was run into and destroyed by a truck… (true story, I promise) although the locals decided that it would be a good plan to put up a metal structure to mark the spot.
I did once get close to it on the Dakar Rally, but I never made it to see what was actually left… I would probably have been disappointed.
Anyway, when I got back to the hotel, I discovered than in my absence on the tree-hunt Lewis Hamilton had tested positive for Covid-19 and that Haas had announced that Nikita Mazepin would be one of its drivers next year, so it was back to battering the keyboard some more… and there followed various other stories such as Pietro Fittipaldi being named as Grosjean’s replacement, George Russell switching from Williams to Mercedes to replace the World champion and Jack Aitken stepping in at Williams in place of George. And then news the next morning that Mick Schumacher would be joining Mazepin at Haas. In the midst of all this Kevin Magnussen was announced at the Ganassi IMSA sports car team and, rather worryingly, BMW and Volkswagen both may shocking announcements about their motorsport programmes, including one which left me completely surprised as BMW terminated its relationship with Schnitzer, after almost 60 years working together. It was a very stark reminder that the motorsport world is not immune to the global economy. And I fear that we will have more announcements in the months ahead.
The week rushed by in a blur and suddenly we were doing it all again in Bahrain with George Russell being the star of the show, although – of course – Sergio Perez’s moment of glory rammed home the absurdity that after Abu Dhabi the Mexican will not have an F1 drive. One can hope, of course, that somehow Sergio will get a ride but if not I am sure we will see him again in 2022. He says he already has an offer on the table and my bet is that it is with Williams, which one hopes will be getting a bit better by then.
Something that few reflected on was how Mercedes was able to pull George out of Williams when previously, admittedly with a different ownership situation, the team refused to let him go. There are two ways to look at this, I suppose: the team decided not to stand in George’s way and the potential value of a few points was not deemed to be worth the trouble of upsetting Mercedes. That is not really an F1 attitude, of course. If there is a chance you stick at it and don’t give it away. I’m quite sure that Mercedes didn’t pay anything and so the only other option is that Mercedes had a way of forcing the situation. The only obvious potential cause for that would be if the engine supply deal payments were not up to date. But, I was told not long ago by Simon Roberts that all Williams’s debts were paid off by the new owners, so I really don’t know the answer. However, there is something worth thinking about in all of this.
Next year Williams will become, by default, Mercedes’s fourth team, behind the factory operation, Aston Martin (aka Racing Point) and McLaren. At the same time Renault is out there with a very decent engine and no customer teams. And they want some… to help with the development of the engine and to place young drivers. Williams-Renault is a monster brand of old and it would make the team second in the pecking order of a manufacturer, rather than fourth – and Renault might be happy to do a deal…
And, in truth, Mercedes might not be too unhappy about that because the engine supply is quite a difficult thing to do for four teams.
We will see…
Getting everything organised to get into Abu Dhabi was the next big deal with lots of boxes to tick and swabs to be done and then we were off heading towards the bioshere that is Yas Island (or at least bits of it). They haven’t shut down the whole place but only a compound around the circuit and the hotels involved. It was a bizarre experience to get here because we all went through tests before we even got to immigration and then we wandered around looking for transportation which had been promised. It was a bit hit-and-miss and it took 90 minutes before the lady in charge had managed to tick enough boxes to allow us to leave, with a police escort to stop us all escaping.
The arrival at the hotel was even more bizarre. In Bahrain we had got used to piped Christmas music in the elevators but when the bus arrived at the hotels, after a weird route presumably because there was only one road in and out, we were greeted by a flurry of snowmen (or whatever the collective noun for snowmen is), which required a serious double-take. Eh? It was dark and these ghostly figures were actually hotel employees wearing full HazMat paper suits just in case we had arrived with viruses hidden in our pockets. We were shepherded into a ballroom with social distancing where we checked in and then were sent off to sealed hotel rooms where we were supposed to stay until the test results came through, at which point we would be allowed to have a green wrist band that meant that we were negative. Since then we have all been sitting around in hotel rooms because the options isn’t really very exciting. In any case, there is always work to be done and while it might be nice to spend some time by the swimming pool here, I’m told that access is restricted to two-hour slots so that people can be socially distanced… Anyway, it’s not my thing…
I may take a wander when I’m done with this writing…
The Abu Dhabi GP will be the 17thrace in 23 weekends – and the final race in the fourth triple-header of the strange 2020 Formula 1 season. It has been the most intense sequence of races that the sport has ever seen – and it is perhaps not really surprising that those who have done all of the events are now weary and run down.
The talk is about whether Lewis Hamilton will be back in a car for the race. On paper it isn’t possible because of the various rules and protocols that are in place and it would probably be unwise, although it might be possible for these to be waived, although I am not sure if that would be good for anyone because if exceptions are made for the rich and powerful then the respect for the system evaporates, as was seen in Britain this summer with Dominic Cummings, the chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. F1 doesn’t need a Cummings Moment and Lewis might like to be back but it is not essential. The championships are all done and dusted so he could just take a longer break nd get ready for next year. That is probably wise because as George Orwell put it in Animal Farm things are not good when “All animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others”.
F1 has sufficient problems to solve and doesn’t need any new ones… Despite the attack of the snowmen it doesn’t feel very like Christmas. People are tired and getting crochety but there was one nice moment in Bahrain when the F1 group, which is viewed by some in the written media as being responsible for keeping us out of the Paddock, delivered a few baskets of sweets and seasonal goodies to the Media Centre. It was a simple gesture and it was much appreciated, although the cynics – of which there are a few – were suspicious… Bernie never gave anyone sweeties! So this was an alien concept.
Was it trying to offset the bad feeling that has been swirling around of late? Was someone thinking that the F1 press is like homely labradors that lollop after the sticks that F1s throw for them, and return begging affection? Perhaps.Who knows? It could just have been a nice gesture. And I think we’ll keep it at that. It is the season to be jolly and to lob goodwill at one another. It’s a time when we should be positive and see the best in people – and to try not to expect the worst…