MAURICE HAMILTON

Bahrain: damned if we do; damned if we don't


There are an uncomfortable few days ahead now that the Bahrain Grand Prix has been given the green light.

I finished last week's column by saying it would have been more sensible for F1's power-brokers to omit the race from the calendar at the outset until there was clear evidence that the grievances in Bahrain had been dealt with. Events in recent days have strengthened that view and raised more questions about the reason Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone seem drawn into this liaison with Bahrain and its rulers.

Whatever the explanation, it had better be good because the actions of the President of the FIA and the Commercial Rights Holder have set up F1 for ill-informed and sometimes pernicious ridicule that is doing serious damage to the image of a sport Ecclestone and Todt purport to care about.

Last Sunday's British national newspapers were among those to set the ball rolling. 'The Observer' condemned the decision to race and then, disappointing for a quality newspaper, used the opportunity to take a cheap swipe at F1. A rambling editorial employed the hackneyed argument about this being a business and not a sport even though the newspaper has happily included F1 within its sports pages - and will probably continue to do so this weekend despite childishly urging its readers not to watch the race on television.

Having previously written for 'The Observer' for more than 20 years, I was saddened and surprised by this one-eyed assault. Not so the column in the 'Mail on Sunday' written by Patrick Collins, known for venting his dislike and ignorance of F1 at the slightest opportunity. And here, courtesy of Todt and Ecclestone, was the perfect excuse for Collins to dip into his collection of tired clich├ęs.

Out came the usual stuff about F1 being 'a noxious, raucous, polluting affront to the environment, masquerading as a sport', followed by an opportunity to attack Ecclestone for daring to become a billionaire. The latter might have been understandable had Collins not proceeded to offer a gentle and informed opinion on football - which, as we all know, is completely free from self-important millionaires diving theatrically in the penalty area and completely out of touch with the cash-strapped fans paying through the nose to watch them.

Strange, too, that neither newspaper chose to mention last weekend's Bahrain Invitational Pro-Celeb Competition with sports stars such as Paul Casey, Joe Montana, Ruud Gullit, Thomas Bjorn and Gianluca Vialli. Where was criticism of these representatives of golf, football and tennis, particularly as the two-day golf tournament was directly linked to the Bahraini government; a major criticism of the Grand Prix coming to town?

The broad objection to the Grand Prix was that the country's Sunni Muslim rulers would be eager to use F1 as a means of showing they had repaired relations with the majority Muslim Shi'ite community after last year's protests. That argument about blatantly earning credibility has been accepted as fact and moved on.

With the race confirmed and the media actually in Bahrain, interest has shifted to discovering whether or not the claims of repaired relations are true. Early evidence seems to suggest that they are not - which, as my previous column pointed out, was the fundamental fact F1 should have established months ago.

F1 now finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. By being present, the sport is giving tacit support to the ruling regime. If the teams pull out, then the 'protestors' will be seen to have gained a victory that will send a signal to other oppressed groups around the world. Todt's mail box would soon be full of messages along the lines of: 'You refused to race in Bahrain because of human rights violations, so why are you racing in China?'

To say that Bahrain and China are completely different because of the strength of the Bahraini government association with the Grand Prix is an irrelevance and will be of no concern to any group with a grievance. Politicians rather F1 should be making the political and moral judgements. But that is the invidious position F1 and the motor sport media have been put in for reasons best known to Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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