I arrived in Bahrain for the last race of the season with two certainties in my mind, Audi were withdrawing from endurance racing and Mark Webber was retiring. Less certain was that Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb would become World Champions. Looking back at Bahrain, everything else was in the lap of the WEC.
Arriving at the circuit for the second time, it still amazes me that such a modern facility is found in the middle of the desert. This year though, security in Bahrain appeared less anxious with fewer check points on the roads to the circuit. At the circuit, though it was a different matter as there was an armed security check point at the circuit perimeter and airport style X-ray scanners as I entered the paddock. Once inside the security perimeter, the usual warm Bahraini hospitality was evident and a professional media facility was at our disposal.
As a photographer, I spend a lot of time alone taking pictures not really aware of what is happening with teams and personnel until I read the press some days later. But one could not help notice that this was Audi’s last day at school, as everywhere you looked there were Audi shirts and alumni knocking about.
Walking down the pit lane, the Toyota garage was a hive of activity with drivers practicing change over, and the crews practicing wheel changes. The Porsche garage was less frenetic with engineers quietly going about their business. The Audi garage was closed, shutters down. Was something mysterious going on inside or was the garage closed? Were Audi already just making up the numbers, or was something mysterious going on?
And what of Mark Webber? Mark is a very private man, sources close to him suggested that he found the media attention very stressful which probably explains why he was conspicuous by his absence throughout the weekend, apart from a ‘Meet the Drivers’ session. I wonder if the Porsche drivers are packed away like airbags, because it’s very rare that you see them get in or out of the car unless it’s during the race. During practice the car is wheeled out, the airline is deployed, and off the car goes with no sign of a driver!
The build-up to the race was pretty unremarkable, but the doubts about Audi just making up the numbers were dashed when #8 qualified on pole and #7 in third place. The race was preceded by a ceremonial lead off by the Audi’s and although qualifying order was resumed, the Audi #7 was first and Audi #8 was second at the end of six hours of racing.
I usually position myself at Parc Ferme to catch the drivers as they exit the cars before going up to the podium. Usually as the cars enter Parc Ferme, engineers and drivers are there to greet and congratulate their co-drivers who brought the car home to a podium position. I have no way of knowing if Mark gave his team mates and engineers instructions to leave him alone with his thoughts and emotions as he left the car, but as Lucas di Grassi and Marcel Fässler embraced and celebrated joined by Ollie Jarvis and Loïc Duval. Mark simply got out of the car waved a couple of times to the crowd and walked off all alone. Strange, seeing as it was his farewell race. I hope that this wasn’t the sign of a man forgotten but not gone.
Due to flight bookings, I had rush from Parc Ferme to the airport and so I missed the podium and celebrations. You may know that 24 hours after the end of the race there is an end of season Gala and this year both Audi and Mark Webber were guests of special mention. Interestingly, although I had to rush from the end of the race to the airport, I found Lucas di Grassi, sitting alone, one row back on my flight. I wonder why he wasn’t at the Gala?
2016 has been a tumultuous year away from the track, and the latter part of 2016 has been no different for the WEC. News coming out as we go to press suggest that the winter period will be no different, and as we prepare to reconvene in Monza in March 2017, we will be faced with a very different landscape.
Written by: John Mountney
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/John Mountney