LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone spoke of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix being postponed rather than cancelled on Monday but putting the race back on the 2011 calendar will be no easy matter.
Apart from the political situation in Manama being beyond the 80-year-old’s control, and nobody knowing how long the unrest will continue, the schedule gives little room for manoeuvre.
This was to have been a record 20-round season, and the calendar still looks crowded with 19.
There is a three-week break in August, when the teams’ factories also shut down, but that respite is seen as vital for tired team members to spend time with their families in the European summer.
The temperatures in Bahrain, scorching in March, would be even more of a problem.
If India was not to be ready for their race debut on October 30, that would provide another opening -- if calm returns to the Gulf kingdom -- but all the signs from Delhi are that the circuit there is ahead of schedule.
A more realistic option might be to re-schedule towards the end of the year, perhaps as a double-header with Abu Dhabi’s November 13 race before a finale in Brazil as late as December.
That might not be welcomed by the Abu Dhabi authorities, who could see their thunder stolen by Gulf rivals hosting a race immediately after them.
“Everybody liked Bahrain, liked the people in Bahrain and the atmosphere...I am a little bit disappointed now that it has been postponed,” Ecclestone told the BBC after the Bahrain authorities had announced the March 13 race was off.
“But if you look at the way that part of the world is at the moment, that’s the only thing that anyone could do I think.”
Formula One has made plenty of controversial calls in the past, with races held in South Africa during apartheid and Argentina at a bloody time in that country’s history, but nobody doubted that the sport had done the right thing this time.
“It is with great sadness that we have watched events unfolding there over the past week and it is quite clear that there are far bigger matters at stake than whether a major sporting event can take place,” said Virgin Racing team boss John Booth.
“Withdrawing from hosting the race at this time was the appropriate course of action and we fully support the decision.”
Asked when the race might now be held, Ecclestone replied: “We don’t know. We are looking to see how we can slot it in.”
“I knew about this a few hours ago, so we haven’t looked into it. We were more concerned with this date rather than another date. We’ll have to wait and see what the position is in Bahrain.”
The sport’s last postponement was forced on Ecclestone by the forces of nature in 1995 when the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida in Japan was called off due to an earthquake. That race was rescheduled from April to October.
Bahrain pays heavily for the privilege of hosting the first race, with some estimates talking of many tens of millions of dollars, which makes a significant contribution to Formula One’s balance sheet.
The Gulf Kingdom also owns more than 40 percent of former champions McLaren through holding company Mumtalakat, giving it additional bargaining power but even that might not be enough.
“There were 19 events last year and there will be 19 this year by the looks of it. It is not like we’re short of grands prix this year,” said BBC commentator and former F1 driver Martin Brundle.
“I hope it is back on the calendar if not later this year then certainly in its due place next year because it is a great venue.”
Ecclestone said Bahrain’s Crown Prince had made the decision to call off the race but dismissed a suggestion that the move had to come from the locals to ensure F1 did not become liable for the costs.
“It has nothing to do with finance...he’s trying to sort the country out properly and get it on the right way so we can carry on there for the future,” said Ecclestone.
“Obviously it (cancelling the race) is the last thing he wanted to do.”
Ecclestone also shrugged off the financial significance for Formula One, saying he had not looked into it and it would not have made much difference if he had.
The teams, mechanics and sponsors will be happy enough with opening the season in Melbourne on March 27 -- as they did regularly in the past -- and some teams will also be thankful for the extra development time.
That would include Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren, the last top team to bring out their new car, who have been troubled by reliability problems in testing and now have extra precious weeks to prepare at home.
Editing by Ed Osmond, To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org