The complexities of long-haul travel under Covid-19 restrictions quickly became apparent while planning my Middle Eastern triple-header sojourn: A booking with Turkish Airlines was rescheduled twice before being cancelled entirely. Although refunds were quickly processed – Lufthansa take note – the overall faffing about cost me well over five hours.
Thursday 26 November
I arrive at hotel around 11am. I’d stayed here previously – although it is now way cheaper than during ‘normal’ race weekends – then self-isolate while taking in afternoon media sessions. Concerned I’d miss conferences due to flight delays I’d submitted pre-recorded video questions, and it was rather eerie watching myself cross-examine drivers against my Belgian office backdrop while I am sitting in Bahrain.
Thereafter I finally manage to catch up on sleep for the first time in 36 hours.
Friday 27 November
Head for circuit at noon. It’s a 40 kilometre drive in light traffic in drizzle (desert islands too have wet stuff) during what is a weekend day in this part of the world. Once again some follies of F1’s Covid regime are apparent: the ‘media’ parking area is packed with cars bearing team or TV passes. We park together, then follow the same path to the paddock, where we are deemed ‘unclean’ and herded into the media centre while they pass through stiles.
Excuse my cynicism, but opening paddocks to media representatives upon payment of exorbitant fees – as with broadcasters – smacks of profit before ‘right to know’ and sets extremely dangerous precedents. F1’s argument is that media folk ‘hop’ amongst teams and could thus carry the pathogen across the paddock, but that pre-supposes we are utterly irresponsible.
The situation is set to become even more farcical in Abu Dhabi, when we all fly (at great cost) from Bahrain to the final race using the same charter flights and are accommodated in the same hotels (ditto), then receive the same treatment at the stiles.
The fact is we don’t need ‘saving from ourselves’ as Ross Brawn once suggested F1 teams do and certainly do not have Covid-19 death wishes. The longer we are banned from paddocks the greater our suspicions over the veracity of F1’s regimes. Equally, such bans could arguably be in breach of F1’s (EU-ratified) 100-year commercial agreement with the FIA, which demands full and free access for accredited media.
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Saturday 28 November
It’s still the weekend so the 30-minute trip is painless if warm: the dashboard icon reads 30C – and its ‘winter’ in Bahrain. However, the island’s driving standards leave lots to be desired, with tailgating being the norm even when travelling at the (120kph) legal limit on highways, while indicators are left flashing in the direction of the last turn, or not at all. I wonder what FIA president Jean Todt makes of it.
F1’s presence in Bahrain remains politically divisive, as questions put to Lewis Hamilton on Thursday indicate. I’ve always found the Bahrainis to be ultra-polite and super obliging, with their care of the media being top class. We are met on arrival at the airport, shuttles are laid on and hotel prices discounted. Plus, the media cuisine is amongst the best.
Upon arrival each media member receives a toiletry bag containing anti-bacterial spray, hand disinfectants and gloves, while on-site PCR tests are administered without delays and results known within hours. Yes, the WEC race a fortnight ago provided ‘dry runs’ but it’s still mightily impressive.
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Clearly a working day as the drive to the circuit at noon takes twice as long. With race start scheduled for 5:10pm local time there is plenty of time to spare between F2 and Porsche races, but fortunately team press officers are happy to make the journey through the stiles and across to the ‘mix zone’ to have a chat. Watch this space for some inside lines.
Between races I linger outside with colleagues and talk turns to driver interviews and our favourites. I suggest that Max Verstappen is tops on driving or racing questions, having always provided solid answers to such questions, but that Romain Grosjean invariably provides good value regardless of topic. I make a note to send him a message to this effect when he leaves F1 after Abu Dhabi.
I’ve enjoyed a good relationship with the Franco-Swiss for about 10 years, and always found him to be extremely courteous despite some of my questions and messages being rather pointed.
And so I feared the worst as his car exploded on the first lap of the race, and these thoughts return as I watch Romain emerge from the fireball that was once a Haas F1 car. Dr Ian Roberts and medical car driver Alan van der Merwe went well beyond the call of duty, and surely deserve official recognition – indeed, I’m proud to call my compatriot a friend, his father Bruce having been one of my racing heroes during my formative years.
Clearly the incident has raised a number of questions and we will be addressing these as the week unfolds ahead of the next race at the same circuit, albeit on a different layout. Until then, take care!