Drawing a shaky line in the sand
JUNE 8, 2011
There are two valid arguments - security of personnel and tacit support for what appears to be an oppressive government - against F1 travelling to Bahrain for the rescheduled Grand Prix on 30 October. On the other hand, the sport will be entering dangerous political territory of a different but more personal nature if it takes a stand and decides not to go.
In simple terms, if Bahrain is seen to be 'bad', does the rest of the Grand Prix calendar indicate that, say, China and Turkey are without internal political fault? This is the dilemma F1 will face if it makes such a potentially far-reaching judgement.
Reports, blogs and messages from Manama are too many and varied to support the view of the Bahraini government and the FIA that the country is returning to normal. Even if the official assurances are true, why are the FIA bending over backwards to accommodate Bahrain when the country has already had its opportunity to stage the race on 13 March? Can you see the same indulgence being granted to Silverstone or Spa should unforeseen events jeopardise those particular races? No, neither can I.
Despite Bernie Ecclestone's assurance that support for Bahrain has absolutely nothing to do with money, it would appear to be precisely that in the eyes of the outside world. And, as an important aside, stretching the calendar to mid-December pays scant regard for hard-working members of F1 society (i.e. 99.9 per cent) who do not have the luxury of ducking off early from each Grand Prix and flying home in their private jets in time for Sunday afternoon tea. But that's another thought entirely.
Returning to the serious issue at hand, high-profile spokesmen such as Mark Webber are making rods for their own backs by speaking out against the FIA's support of the Bahrain GP. It is a typical no-nonsense move from Webber which must be respected hugely on a personal level. But his inbox is likely to be bombarded by campaigners asking if he has read this report about police violence in Brazil or that account of the Turkish government's treatment of Kurdish people.
Just because the Bahrain protests are headline news, why should that make it acceptable for F1 to race in parts of the world where other atrocities are kept below the radar? Which F1 host country can, hand on heart, stand up and say it is completely clean? So why, the logic will go, is F1 - and you, Mr Webber - ignoring this injustice in my country, or that act of unseen but unspeakable cruelty some place else? Tricky, isn't it?
The answer in this case is that F1 is being used as glamorous vote of approval: a Bahraini political tool in everything but name. This, in turn, will make the Grand Prix and its workers a magnet for every dissident in the country. The resulting security will be stifling and potentially disorganised to a worrying degree. And none of it in keeping with what is supposed to be a celebration of motor sport at the highest level.
Speaking of which, if the teams continue to make noises about taking a stance and going against the FIA's naive edict, it will be interesting to see if their business partners - be they motor manufacturers, airlines or blue chip companies - follow the same line of moral indignation and stop dealing with Bahrain on a commercial basis. I think we know there is about as much chance of that as there is of the FIA refusing to allow the British constabulary to operate at Silverstone because the cynical actions of a truncheon-wielding policeman led to the death of a peaceful protester in London in 2009.
Frankly, it is a mess. Personally, I am not planning to travel to Bahrain. I won't pretend this is an act of defiance or protest because, to be totally honest, it's a good excuse to avoid one of my least favourite races on a soulless circuit completely devoid of atmosphere.
This year, there will ambience of a totally different kind. Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa, President of the Bahrain Motor Federation, described his race last year as a "momentous weekend for Formula One". It could be the same on 30 October - but for all the wrong reasons if this piece of propaganda masquerading as a motor race actually goes ahead.
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.