Formula 1 went to Bahrain and lived through a quite extraordinary weekend. I certainly have never had a race meeting like it in my 29 year career. We have had a few whacky races, but this was extraordinary. Most Western journalists are barred from entering Bahrain at the moment because the government feels that coverage of its activities has been deeply unfair. That sounded like a load of old rubbish before I went there and I was very negative about the event and how it was being used as a propaganda tool. All the news reports consistently reported a country in a state of war. That was not what I found when I got there. Sure, there are problems, but they are far less widespread than the reports suggest. I spent three days there and went right across the country twice each day and never saw a protester, let alone a rioter. I went to some of the hotspots, but all was quiet.
A lot of bad press
Bahrain and Formula 1 was on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. It completely undermined my faith in much of the media. Perhaps you get what you deserve. The Bahraini's idea of not allowing in established media outlets has meant that the news available has been scraped together by local stringers and anyone available. A lot of the F1 journalists who work for newspapers were asked by their employers to write about politics. They soon discovered that if you wanted to find trouble you could. And the activists were only too keen to help and given incendiary interviews. On the other hand the government was bending over backwards to deliver its message, but most media did not trust "the regime", because of its past record. I was definitely untrusting. But as each day passed I saw that no matter where I went and when I went there there was only sporadic activity. There was certainly no insurrection as the extremists would have us believe.
The other Bahrainis
I spent one evening in long conversations with three locals who were neither government supporters, nor radical opponents. They just wanted peace in their country and the chance to be prosperous. Two were Sunni, one was Shia, but one of the Sunnis, a travel agent employed Shias. The other two were a banker and a university lecturer. They were all quite happy living together but feared what would happen if Shia extremists took power. They supported the government, despite its faults, because they felt it offered the best chance for the future.
I was convinced that the world is not being given a true picture of events. On Sunday I wrote that "the dozens of armoured cars that were lining the routes to the circuit" were a complete invention. We saw one armoured car in three days. After the race I was asked to go and see the Crown Prince, who had expressed the desire to see me. I was a little surprised when he thanked me for telling the true story about Bahrain.
I still believe that it was wrong for F1 to be there. The sport ended up serving the interests of both sides in the conflict. All Formula 1 got from Bahrain was awful media coverage. It was universally negative. There are some, Bernie Ecclestone among them, who do not believe that there is such a thing as bad publicity.
There is no question that the Bahrain Grand Prix did get the sport into the news, but will that really lead to new viewers?
Formula 1 took a huge risk, but got away with it. Should the sport have been there and taken the risks that were taken? This was not F1's business and we should have stayed out of it, but if we managed to show the world that there are two sides to every argument then I guess we served a purpose.
The author has attended every grand prix for the last 25 years