Evening Standard

Hard viewing: Zayed Alzayani, surveying the action at Silverstone, has had to come to terms with seeing his race dropped from the F1 calendar. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

The chairman of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Zayed Alzayani, left Silverstone on Sunday making all the right noises and saying it was “a very good race, a fair result and the new facilities made a huge difference”.

However, even as Silverstone rejoiced in attracting more people than any grand prix this season – 100,000 – Alzayani could not help but compare how much more special his own Bahrain race is and how much he is going to miss it this season.

“At Silverstone you feel the race only on the track,” he tells me. “You don’t see anything at the airport, maybe a small banner, nothing in London. You come to Oxford Street, nobody knows the grand prix is on. If this was the race weekend in Bahrain, you would see posters and fliers and advertisements in every shopping mall, in every corner of the town. To us, the grand prix is definitely the biggest event of the year.

“We anticipate it all year long, it puts Bahrain on the map, transforms the nation and changes the mood of the people. It is bigger than your Silverstone, the FA Cup, the Derby, the Grand National all rolled into one.”

Alzayani’s tone is not bombastic, it is almost regretful, reflecting the cancellation of this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix. The government, which fully funds the race, will lose half a billion dollars.

But, more than that, it has hit what his country’s Royal Family considers is a national treasure. It was the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who brought Formula One to the Middle-East in 2004 after paying Bernie Ecclestone, the rights holder, an estimated £25million. The Crown Prince also put Alzayani, whose family business includes car dealerships for Ferrari, on the board of the grand prix.

Chairman since 2008, Alzayani’s business card proudly boasts, “The Home of Formula One in the Gulf.”

Alzayani’s lament for losing the grand prix due to the social and political uprising in his country, which has been seen across parts of the Middle-East, may be understandable. The problem arises when the 42-year-old businessman insists that the human rights situation in Bahrain is no different, not only to China but even to Australia or the United States.

“They’re going to the US next year,” he says. “What about Guantanamo? Isn’t that human rights violation? As Bernie told me, ‘If human rights was the criterion for F1 races, we would only have them in Belgium and Switzerland in the future’.”

Yet, Bahrain is a country where, back in February just weeks before the first F1 race was due to start, the main Pearl Roundabout in the financial district of Manama saw 31 protestors killed.

Armoured cars, containing Saudi and forces from other countries, rolled into the kingdom. The killings have stopped, the tanks are more discreet but human rights groups continue to detail serious violations with protestors detained, even tortured.

Alzayani admits that, not long before the F1 season opener in Australia in March, the GP2 Asia series race had to be cancelled, “because the ambulances were busy”. He adds: “We have to have a minimum of 18 ambulances to run a race and, because of the riots and people getting injured, all the ambulances were diverted to attend to the protests. So we couldn’t run the race.”

It was after this, on instructions from the Crown Prince, that Alzayani announced the postponement of the grand prix, hoping it could be held in October or November. For a while last month, it seemed that Alzayani would get his wish. An inspection team from the FIA, the world governing body, visited Bahrain and recommended that, “there is no indication of any problems or reason why the Bahrain Grand Prix should not return to the 2011 calendar”.

The FIA’s World Council voted for the race to be run on October 30. But, within a week, there was much outrage from human rights activists and race fans. Nor were the F1 teams happy.

The FIA’s judgment was further called into question when details of the inspection emerged.

Over a two-day trip, FIA met the Minister of Culture and Tourism, the Minister of Interior, had lunch with Alzayani’s board, met circuit personnel and visited a shopping centre. It was clear the race could not go ahead.

Until now, the view has been that Ecclestone pulled the trigger. But Alzayani believes that is not so.

“It was a unanimous vote of all the 26 World Council members,” he says. “Bernie voted for it. On the June 8, I met him here in London. He said, ‘There is resistance from the teams but if you want I’ll push for it. We’ll get it sorted.’ He even gave us the option of holding it on December 4. This was never about Bernie losing money by not having a race in Bahrain.”

Alzayani’s angst is with the F1 teams. “They have been very temperamental,” he says. “I feel disappointed because it cannot go within three months from one end of the spectrum, ‘Oh, you are my favourite destination. We love it here. We feel like we are at home in Bahrain.’ To the other, ‘We don’t want to go to Bahrain.’ Yes, events have happened in between but you can’t be so temperamental.”

To hold the race on October 30 would have meant Bahrain taking the spot of India – the new commercial centre – and extending the calendar into December. “There were a lot of complaints from the teams and sponsors and, at the end of the day, we withdrew,” admits Alzayani. “We didn’t want to stir up a fight with the teams.”

But he is not so reticent when it comes to Max Mosley. The former head of the FIA was very critical of how his successor, Jean Todt, handled the affair. Mosley was surprised that the inspection team was led by Carlos Gracia, head of the Spanish Motor Federation, who doesn’t speak English or Arabic.

“That shows you how naive Max Mosley is,” Alzayani says. “There were translators there. I don’t have to speak Chinese to do business in China. Max is very vocal and not accurate. He talks about morality – if I was him, I would probably not use the word ‘morality’.

“I think Max has a grudge against Bahrain because he was officially asked by the Crown Prince not to attend the grand prix.”

This followed revelations in 2008, in the News of the World, about Mosley’s private life. “It happened very close to our grand prix,” explains Alzayani. “He planned to show up and, being head of the FIA, it was thought he better not show up in Bahrain.”

But Mosley, who successfully sued the now defunct paper for invasion of privacy, tells a different version of the story. “It was nothing to do with that or with whether Gracia spoke English,” he retorts. “Of course there were interpreters. But Gracia is not a lawyer.

“What the FIA should have done is send a human rights lawyer. The Formula One world did not seem to appreciate that the government in Bahrain was about to use the grand prix in support of suppressing human rights.”

Mosley was not the only one to raise human rights. Back in February when the uprising in Bahrain took off, Mark Webber, of Red Bull, had voiced concern, although he was the only driver to do so. Alzayani says almost in a resigned tone: “Yeah, he talked about human rights and all that.”

Then, in a reference to Webber’s own country, Alzayani says pointedly: “Doesn’t Australia have issues with the Aborigines? I don’t see Mark Webber talking about that. Why Mark Webber went against Bahrain I don’t know. He’s raced in Bahrain many times and he’s always loved it. We’ve never had any criticism in the previous seven grands prix. We’ve always been getting high marks for our organisation, everyone involved at F1 loves it.”

In the past, this seal of approval was given by many, including both Mosley and Prince Andrew. In his office, Alzayani has the picture taken at the time of the groundbreaking ceremony in 2003 for the construction of the Bahrain circuit. “It shows Max Mosley, Prince Andrew and the Crown Prince holding the shovel. Prince Andrew comes to Bahrain four to five times a year.”

This may prove that F1 is a sport with a special capacity to shut out the world as long as it can find a racetrack. Alzayani cannot accept that the world could not shut out what happened in Bahrain for the sake of a motor race.

But then he refuses to accept that the world changed with the Arab spring. Indeed, he argues: “Bahrain shouldn’t be confused with the fight for democracy that is going on in other parts of the Middle-East. There are two types of Middle-East.

“You’ve got Tunisia and Egypt, which are nationalistic movements. Then you’ve got Libya, Yemen and Syria, whose three leaders are using everything in their arsenal to stay in power. You see people being killed every day. Bahrain is neither.

“His Majesty [King Hamad] is not Gaddafi or Assad. He has lifted the emergency and appointed highly reputable international judges to look into the situation. There is a national dialogue going on.”

Yet even as Alzayani presents this picture of a normal society, it emerges that opposition groups are taking only a limited part in the talks.

They expect no real change, a view reinforced in last Friday’s sermon by the most senior Shiite cleric who said the country’s rulers were “not serious” about the dialogue. And when I ask Alzayani whether F1 will return to Bahrain next season, he can only say: “I don’t know when the race will be held next year. It’s not our call.”


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