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F1: Ecclestone at risk of losing all on Bahrain gamble

Formula One has always been about gambling; with drivers' lives, with money, with other people's money. Its unique mix of business, politics, engineering and breathtaking skill and bravery behind the wheel means the stakes are always high.

Rarely, though, can it have found itself on the horns of a dilemma such as it encounters today, at the centre of a complex row over human rights, money, politics, even international diplomacy.

The decision to push ahead with tomorrow's Bahrain Grand Prix in spite of ongoing civil unrest was always a big gamble. Now it has turned into a potentially ruinous one.

With Force India skipping second practice yesterday -- they were worried about returning to their hotel in the dark -- after a firebomb incident on Wednesday night, and Sauber admitting that a bus full of their mechanics was approached by masked men brandishing Molotov cocktails the following night, everyone out here is jittery.

An estimated 10,000 people swarmed the highway north of the circuit yesterday to protest against the ruling Sunni regime, with rioting expected to break out across the city as it has most nights this week. Every day the protesters become more encouraged by the international attention they are garnering, with news reporters being denied visas as they scramble to get in on the action.

But the sport presses on. To cancel now, as Bahrain's Crown Prince said yesterday, "would simply empower extremists". The fact is the sport should not have come here in the first place.

That much is clear now. We received mixed messages beforehand, the authorities claiming that such rioting as there was confined to outlying villages and districts, with Manama a haven of calm. And for the most part it is. But successive nights have seen teams caught in the crossfire and the situation is escalating. Formula One is helping it to escalate.

Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's chief executive, and Jean Todt, the president of the governing body, have a lot on the line. Ecclestone, in particular, is used to tough questions but should things go wrong very tough questions will be asked. To what extent did commercial and political interests cloud their judgment?

It's why everyone tried so hard to pass the buck last week, with Ecclestone saying it was up to the teams, the teams saying it was up to the FIA and the FIA saying nothing. But ultimately those two carry the responsibility for Formula One being here. Sure, the teams and drivers and sponsors could have boycotted the race but they rely to a certain extent on the information they receive from above.


Ecclestone was his usual flippant self when asked for his thoughts on events this week. "It's a lot of nonsense," he said. "You guys want a story, and it's a good story, and if there isn't a story you make it up."

The sad thing is this crisis was entirely predictable. Formula One journalists have copped a certain amount of criticism this week for venturing into areas of conflict to ask for people's thoughts about the race, to try to report on what is happening. For deigning to be reporters, in other words.

What did the Bahraini and Formula One authorities think? That they would sit in their hotels all week, only venturing to the track to talk about rear wings and F-ducts? Now we are where we are. The best possible outcome will see the sport emerge through the weekend unscathed. Even then it has been some terrible PR.

The worst case scenario? It doesn't bear thinking about. But it could mean Todt and Ecclestone are gored on the horns of a dilemma of their own making. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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Irish Independent