The road to Bahrain
MARCH 1, 2002
When he was Cultural Attache at the Moscow Embassy in the 1970s, The Mole was rather fond of the place. One really did meet the most interesting people at embassy cocktail parties. A lot of those people have ended up in the government of the new post-Soviet Russia. Others have ended up dead because in recent years Russia has had the feeling of an old frontier town. Disputes and business deals have on occasion (quite a lot of occasions actually) ended up being settled using the Kalashnikov rather than the negotiating table. The bullet rather than the bullet point. The Russians want to change all that and get rid of the rather unsavoury image that the country has had in the last 10 years.
This is a good idea.
The idea of using Grand Prix racing to highlight change is not a new idea. Over the years Formula 1 has become more and more of a marketing tool for governments or municipal authorities which want to alter their image. Places like Beirut and Calcutta could use a better image than they have and F1 is a very cheap way of creating a new image. The perceived glamour of Formula 1 is a powerful force and one only needs to look at what was achieved in Long Beach, California, to know that the system does work.
The demand for Grand Prix races is now such that the circus came gain a large amount of money from anyone bidding for a race. No-one likes to talk about the kind of money that a place like Malaysia has to pay to get the F1 teams to visit each year but the figures are in the region of $10m each season. And they are rising because many of the older European races have rushed to do long-term deals in the knowledge that there are new big spenders on the block.
Moscow is said to be offering F1 a lot of money and while this is an attraction for the powers-that-be, there are one or two who seem to think that F1 has to consider other issues before agreeing to hold races anywhere. If Robert Mugabe, for example, decided that he would build a Grand Prix track on confiscated farmland in order to promote what an enlightened and lovely place Zimbabwe is, would Formula 1 go there and take the money? World Formula 1 go to Baghdad and have Saddam Hussein handing out the trophies?
The answer is probably not because while it might be good for Mugabe or Hussein and it might be profitable for the Formula One group of companies, it would not necessarily be greeted with enthusiasm by the teams and the F1 sponsors.
Generally there is not much dispute in these matters but back in 1985 when F1 persisted on visiting South Africa despite the laws of Apartheid, you may recall that the Renault and Ligier teams did not make the trip because of government pressure on them. France had long been a leader in European anti-Apartheid actions and did not want the teams with which it had associations being seen to be supporting the South African regime. It was a rare political statement in a sport which is not famed for its political correctness.
As the sport has become more enlightened in its attitudes so an awareness has grown that the sport must be presenting the right image. When you are dealing with vast corporations image is everything and there will be some who will whisper in the right ears that they do not wish to be associated with a Grand Prix in Moscow.
There are exceptions which are made along the way for different reasons. The annual trip to Brazil is not the most popular event but everyone in the sport understands that it is important for F1 to be seen to be in South America and if there have to be double standards, well so be it. At least in the short term.
There are compromises that have to be made.
At the moment The Mole thinks that the best events on offer to F1 (in the overall scheme of things) are not the much talked-about Moscow and Turkey races but rather one of the quieter bids which have been bubbling along in the Middle East. There are good reasons for at least one of these to happen. Formula 1 and its sponsors like the look of the Arab world. There is a big middle class with money to spend. The revenues generated by oil are in some places beginning to decline as the oil reserves dwindle or the price of a barrel drops. The more intelligent of the Arab rulers recognise that they need to invest to build up new industries such as tourism, high technology or high finance. Giving a dusty emirate the image of Monte Carlo is not stupid at all. And since September 11 the Arab world is also looking at ways in which it can show the world that not all Arabs are terrorists or fundamentalists.
If The Mole was sitting behind the big desk at FOM headquarters at Number Six Princes Gate in London, rather than behind the big desk at Mole Headquarters in Vauxhall he would be doing his best to sign a deal with the people of Bahrain or Dubai, whichever was the most serious-looking project. The priorities for The Mole would be to build up more interest in the United States and in the civilised Middle East. Moscow, Turkey, India and China can all come later when things have calmed down and the infrastructure is right. It does no harm of course to have more bids than there are venues available. That helps to keep the price bubbling gently upwards.
In recent days Bernie Ecclestone has been in Moscow and in Istanbul, talking about holding races in both of these countries. Over the years The Mole has watched Ecclestone is action and tends to feel that the most serious race bids are the ones that we do not hear about until everything is signed and sealed rather than ones which have very public negotiations. We heard a lot about China and it never happened. We heard a great deal of Indonesia and it never happened. There was going to be a race in India and in South Africa but we have the same old races as we have always had except that Indianapolis and Malaysia have popped up.
The quiet race projects are the most serious ones, which is why The Mole thinks that Russia and Turkey are both red herrings (if you will excuse the mixed political/culinary metaphor).
The Mole likes the look of Bahrain in 2004.
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