Postcard from Bahrain

Bahrain had never been a country I had held much great intention of ever visiting when I was a kid.

Typically there are places and sights we all say we want to see as part of a hypothetical travel bucket list. I personally always wanted to visit Japan (check), Argentina (check), New Zealand (working on it) and do all 50 U.S. states – only 47 to go…

But Bahrain? Not really. I knew F1 went there, so expected to visit someday, but the first opportunity came about last weekend for the FIA World Endurance Championship season finale.

And boy, it’s been a fun trip.

Bahrain as a country is hardly awash with things to do – just the 30-minute drive from the airport to the circuit basically takes you the length of the island – but the circuit at Sakhir is a tremendous facility. Introduced to the Formula 1 calendar back in 2004, the Bahrain International Circuit offers one of the warmest, most welcoming paddocks around, with the traditional pre-race barbecue bringing the WEC paddock together on Wednesday night.

The track has attained mixed reviews over the years, but it was quite nice to get a taste of it myself via a hot lap in a suped-up Renault Clio thanks to the circuit team. All hot laps are fun, but the thing that really hit me was just how much the elevation changes around the circuit, particularly going downhill through the second sector before heading back up again – back end stepping out all the way, whee! – for the sector 2/3 split.

The race weekend itself was a particularly poignant one as Porsche said farewell to the LMP1 class and gave its legendary 919 Hybrid – arguably one of the greatest cars of all time – a swansong outing. While a dream victory to sign off on did not arrive, Porsche nevertheless bid farewell in style with both championships already under its belt from Shanghai.

The amount of news coming out of the Bahrain WEC paddock surprised me. At the end of a season and with the main titles already settled, I half expected a relatively simple, straightforward working weekend. Instead, I probably came away having picked up a ton of news nuggets – some already known, others to become public in the coming weeks… – and learned more than in any other race weekend this season. The F1 paddock may offer some normality next weekend, remarkably!

Sunday’s main talking point was the arrival of Fernando Alonso for his long-awaited LMP1 test. Alonso has been dying to race at Le Mans for some time, even requesting an appearance with the AF Corse team in the GTE-Pro class back in 2014, only for Ferrari to refuse. Ron Dennis was also unwilling to let Alonso race at Le Mans in 2015 despite talks with Porsche. Zak Brown’s arrival at McLaren has changed things, though. The executive director’s own sports car interests – he co-owns the United Autosports team Alonso will race at Daytona with in January – and McLaren’s greater openness have made it possible.

But the WEC rookie test appearance was a tough one to push through. The deal was meant to be announced earlier in the week, but confirmation only arrived on Saturday night after the race had finished due to a hold-up with the Honda side of the deal. Alonso could never race a Toyota at Le Mans so long as the McLaren-Honda partnership remained. And until December 31, he is still a McLaren-Honda driver.

Pushing through to make the maiden test happen on Sunday was a good news story for the WEC at the end of a rocky season that saw the LMP1 era as we know it come to an end. However, the complications of the Honda/Toyota conflict meant it was somewhat bizarre at times in terms of promotion and Alonso’s availability.

Photo: Adrenal Media/WEC

Toyota made not a single direct mention of Alonso on its LMP1 team Twitter all weekend. The announcement tweet simply read “latest news” with a link to the press release and a picture of the tower at the Bahrain International Circuit. The team tweeted information and photos about LMP2 star, Thomas Laurent (remember this name), who was also testing the TS050 Hybrid LMP1 car in Bahrain, but said nothing of Alonso. It did retweet the WEC’s own tweets about the Spaniard, though – ‘RTs are not endorsements’ even stretches to teams and companies, you know!

The complexity of the contract stipulations meant little could be said by any party about the test – including Alonso. A group of around 10 journalists camped out for an hour to try and speak to Alonso during the lunch break, only to be brushed off twice with a “maybe later”. “Later” came, but once again Alonso simply walked past, head down. “I spoke already,” was all he said, referring to his brief comments to the Toyota team PR in the garage at the end of the session. And that was that.

Alonso’s bluntness did irk some of us who had been waiting around. Generally in WEC, people are happy to give you a couple of minutes of their time for an impromptu chat. It’s a world away from F1, though, where the majority of interviews must be pre-arranged and planned, particularly with someone of Alonso’s profile. I wasn’t remotely surprised knowing how F1 drivers operate – just a little narked we’d wasted 90 minutes of our day for nothing.

But again, there was little Alonso could have probably said. This test was really a bonus, with proper running with Toyota set to follow at a later date ahead of a Le Mans entry next year. Let’s hope once the Honda contract complications are out of the way, he’ll be happier to stop for a chat.

Contrasting Alonso was Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of Brazilian F1 legend Emerson, who had the honour of being the final man to drive the Porsche 919 Hybrid in anger as a reward for his World Series Formula V8 3.5 title win in Bahrain. Fittipaldi was super-generous with his media time, conducting interviews both during the lunch break and after the session when his running was over. He even ended the day faster than Alonso – even if it’s only testing, it was nevertheless a nice little boost for the youngster.

WEC is now gearing up for its longest winter yet, with the 2018/19 ‘Super Season’ officially starting with the 6 Hours of Spa at the beginning of May. Toyota LMP1 team president Hisatake Murata confirmed at the end-of-season awards gala the marque would return to the class next season despite Porsche’s withdrawal, and a number of LMP1 privateers are set to arrive and boost the class. The grid will still be booming, which is good.

But we cannot ignore the fact that this is the end of a significant era for the WEC and sports car racing. The Porsche LMP1 programme pushed to lengths never seen before in sports cars, rivaling F1 efforts in terms of spending. It was never really going to be sustainable; the bubble had to burst at some point. The heyday of the Toyota-Audi-Porsche fight will likely do down as one of the greatest eras in sports car racing and Le Mans history, if not the greatest.

Photo: Porsche

The series will live on though. GTE-Pro is looking insanely strong for next year, with Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, Ford and the arriving BMW all signed up for full-season WEC campaigns, as well as the addition of Corvette for Le Mans. That will most probably be the class to watch next year.

The ‘Super Season’ as a concept is interesting, but most crucially, it gives both the FIA and the ACO time to work hard to plot the long-term future of the WEC. LMP1 as a category seems to be on life support, even with the arriving privateers. Toyota knows it should have two easy Le Mans victories to pick up in the next two years, and will then want a good reason to continue racing. It needs competition. It needs a proper blueprint for what the future of sports car racing’s top category will look like. With DPi going great guns in the United States, convergence with IMSA may not be such a bad idea…

The majority of the WEC paddock now has a chance to kick-back and relax after a busy season – unless you’re Brendon Hartley, and you have an eighth consecutive race weekend to follow with F1 this week coming, or if you’re in the gaggle of journalists or photographers (myself included) who will also be heading to Abu Dhabi.

I’ve got the count of hearty folk sharing my season-ending triple-header of Bahrain WEC, Abu Dhabi F1 and Hong Kong Formula E up to three. And then after that, there will be the Christmas break – which is all of about three weeks before things fire up again…

5 thoughts on “Postcard from Bahrain”

  1. I was wondering why the test was so much on the DL. Honda connections, duh! Thanks for the insights, Luke. Going to be a long wait until Spa 2018!

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