Over the holidays, we're revisiting some of 2012's biggest stories. Number two in the series reflects on the dispute over whether to hold the Bahrain Grand Prix...
When Formula 1 made the final decision not to go to Bahrain amid its political turbulence in 2011, the championship's bosses insisted that the sport was still committed to racing in the Gulf state once the situation had calmed. It duly scheduled the Sakhir race on the 2012 calendar. But opinions differed markedly on whether the tensions had eased – or even worsened.
The debate over whether it was safe or morally right for F1 to go to Bahrain raged right through the race itself. The grand prix passed without incident, but there is unlikely ever to be a consensus on whether running the event was the right call.
2012 had only just begun when the Bahrain controversy reopened.
Human rights groups led calls for a boycott, while the Bahrain authorities remained adamant all was well, a verdict backed by a group of British Members of Parliament.
However, Bernie Ecclestone was still resolutely in favor. The teams preferred to stay out of the fight beyond backing the FIA's judgement on whether the race should happen or not.
The green light is given
Finally, with just one week to go before the race, the FIA announced that it was satisfied that there was no reason not to hold the Bahrain GP. That announcement was followed shortly afterward by an Amnesty International report arguing that the Bahrain situation was now even worse than it had been when the 2011 grand prix was canceled...
The debate was now about both F1 personnel's safety and the sport's morals. Should its official position of political neutrality mean it raced on regardless, or stayed clear of the state to avoid being seen to take sides?
The organizers' decision to use the official F1 logo in its "UniF1ed" promotional slogan provided more ammunition for critics, which now included former World Champion Damon Hill, although he later softened his stance.
A tense weekend
The event passed without major incident, but it was an anxious time. A team in the supporting Porsche Supercup chose not to make the trip, while Force India sat out second practice so its crew could return to the hotel in daylight following an early scare. Ecclestone was not impressed...
A dispute over whether Force India was deliberately snubbed by the TV cameras as punishment followed, but the team itself insisted it still backed the call to go ahead with the race.
Bahrain was hailed as a success by F1's bosses and the race officials, and they were right that it had passed without any obvious signs of major trouble. But the debate over whether that was due to luck or judgement continued, as did concerns that F1 had tarnished its image regardless.
As for the race itself, Sebastian Vettel took the first win of his title defence, fending off Lotus duo Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in the most entertaining Sakhir grand prix so far.