In mid February, there was no way the Formula 1 circus could consider visiting Bahrain.  By the end of the month, those in power came out and said so.  On Friday, the FIA World Council confirmed that the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix would take place on October 30th.

In order to accommodate the race, India’s first Grand Prix will be moved to another date, likely to be December 11th.  There are whispers that the Indian race organisers could use the extra few weeks, but it’s a smack in the face for all those fans who’ve already finalised their travel and hotel plans for Delhi.

Though the ongoing struggles are subject to rather less scrutiny now than they were at the turn of the year, Bahrain remains full of political tension and continues to show zero tolerance for dissenting voices.  Things are more orderly than they were, but the methods used to create that order are, to say the least of it, questionable.  With that in mind, let’s make a little assumption before we get rolling, shall we?  Let’s assume that those in power are on the same wavelength as Mark Webber, an intelligent chap blessed with the power to construct a balanced opinion and the eloquence to put that opinion forward.  If they are, and if the majority of the foreign offices I mentioned in February still advise against all but non-essential travel, what on Earth are we going there for?

Well…perhaps we’re not.

Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family are friends of Formula 1.  Their financial investment, both in terms of building the Manama International Circuit facility and paying Bernie Ecclestone’s sanctioning fee, has been considerable.  Neither the sport’s governing body nor its moneymaker-in-chief will be in any hurry to distance themselves from friends with deep pockets, particularly at a time when several FIA-sanctioned championships are seeking to establish themselves in the Middle East.

The same considerations do not apply to, for example, Vodafone, Santander or Red Bull, who might not be all that keen to have their products associated with increased security risks and the prospect of opposition protests.  Their representatives will see comments like those of Mohamed Al-Maskati, the head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights:

“On the one hand, Formula One isn’t respecting human rights, but on the other, it’s a good chance for the people to express how they feel on television worldwide.”

Once they’ve taken in those words, they might well consider that no matter what the organisers promise as far as a ring of steel around the circuit goes, the circuit is not the only place of interest in Bahrain.  Should this race go ahead, there’ll be photographers and camera crews all over Manama, not just at the racetrack, capturing images that reflect the public mood.  If Mohamed Al-Maskati’s words have any ring of truth to them, and those within Bahrain have indicated that they do, such expressions of opinion aren’t going to be the kind of thing any major sponsor wants to be connected with.  Add in the safety aspect – short of setting up camp within the circuit boundaries, there’s not much you can do to keep everyone within F1 protected at all times – and you might well find that the teams, rather than the governing body, will be the ones to say we’re not going to Bahrain.

It’s difficult to see anything putting a stop to that, not even the interesting pickle in which Martin Whitmarsh, CEO at McLaren and head of the Formula One Teams Association, finds himself.  Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company, which manages investments on behalf of the Kingdom of Bahrain, has a 42% shareholding in his team.  His next conference call should be a giggle, but there’s a convenient get-out in place, not just for Whitmarsh but for team owners up and down the pit lane.

That get-out, oddly enough, is that motor racing doesn’t really involve itself in human rights.  By walking away from the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix on those grounds, Formula 1 would leave itself open to all manner of questions.  How, for example, could you condone the sport’s continued presence in China, home to some of the most high-profile political prisoners of recent years?  Why would one of the last sports to condemn apartheid in South Africa, a sport which made the annual trek to Argentina all the way through the Process, now decide that it can’t be associated with any regime that chooses to maintain order through repressive measures?  Few men in the corridors of power would be especially keen to tackle such questions, not least because delivering an honest answer would require an extensive knowledge of synonyms for the word ‘money’.

What motor racing does involve itself in is logistics, and the numbers generated by shoehorning Bahrain into this year’s calendar are a fine way to reverse out of this year’s race.  These comments come from Ross Brawn, team boss at Mercedes GP, speaking for every other team in the paddock:

It is getting too much.  Our guys have been working since January.  We don’t have test teams anymore, so the same guys have been working since January and we are asking them to work into December.  That means there is no time for a holiday before Christmas and that would mean getting straight back in to it in January.

“So personally I think it is unacceptable and we’ve told Bernie that and he knows our opinion. If we continue to take those sort of approaches then we will run into problems because our people cannot be expected to work in that environment and situation, so I think it is totally unacceptable.”

The more you think on it, the more this kind of objection works for everybody.  It works for the rulers in Bahrain because by being reinstated to the schedule, they’ve been able to show the FIA, who in turn have shown the world, that the country is ready to get back to normal and entirely capable of hosting a peaceful, successful worldwide event.  It works for the FIA and for Bernie because this way, the refusal to race in Bahrain comes from another organisation and has no impact upon their relationship with Crown Prince Salman and his family.  It works for the teams because it allows them to save face with their sponsors and their fans without unduly upsetting their governing body.  At every step, someone’s telling a lie of some description, but it must be worthwhile.  It’d be foolish to put Formula 1 through a thoroughly public kicking for the sake of one race if it wasn’t.

The other possibility, of course, is that there’ll actually be a race in Bahrain at the end of October.  Would you watch?  Let me know.

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Comments
  1. I don’t understand how the team can go to a country that is allowed to be doing what they are doing to there own people. Again is Money more important than what is inhumane what the royal family are doing.

    • Stephen,

      They can go because the FIA Vice-President was shown around Bahrain last week and has reported that everything is normal. There is, we’re told, a real spirit of reconciliation. He was, of course, shown around by representatives of the royal family and various branches of government. Funny how they didn’t see any tear gas or rubber bullets that day, isn’t it?

      I don’t think F1 will go there, in truth, at least not this year. I really don’t see how its image, particularly among the blue-chip corporate sponsors, could sustain it. If that’s the case, though, what I don’t fully understand is why those in charge are leaving themselves open to this kind of backlash.

      • Martha A Hisington says:

        Shown around by the government. And you don’t think there’s anything wrong with that? Do you know how they didn’t see any rubber bullets (rubber coated STEEL bullets) or any teargas? That’s because they didn’t get anywhere near the villages where the people are trapped inside with check-points where the machine-gun-toting Bahrain “Defense” Forces pull them out of their cars and beat hell out of them. The attacks aren’t going on in downtown Manama nor at the racetrack. Oh, and the staff at the racetrack? They were arrested and tortured.
        You’re a snotty type who doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s going on in Bahrain. Anyone who wanted to know what’s going on there would have seen the many news reports and videos of all the death and destruction the regime is bringing about. ANYONE WHO WANTED TO KNOW.

      • Martha,

        Thanks for commenting. Please read my comment to Stephen again, along with the links and quotes provided in the more recent ‘Todt: Our envoy saw a stable situation’. I know what’s going on. I have also taken the trouble to cite 3 separate news sources in the ‘stable situation’ post, all confirming the tear gas, the bullets and the continued oppression you cite. The Independent also carried a very good article yesterday, an eyewitness account from one of the circuit staff you mentioned.

        This is a topic that generates strong feeling, which I appreciate, but I don’t really appreciate receiving comments such as yours when I completely agree with you and have already taken measures to demonstrate that via this blog. In addition, the title of the post you’ve commented on asks if we’re really serious about going to Bahrain, which I’d hoped would make my position clear.

        I’m sorry to sound quite so defensive, but I’d very much like you to read these posts again and explain how you’ve reached your conclusions. As far as I can see, we think the same thing.

  2. Dutch Johnson says:

    I have been following the protest in Bahrain since they have started. Coincidentally, I am a fan of F1. If the race is held, no effort will be spared on the part of the oppressed to benignly protest in view of the cameras. Bahrain knows this. Bahrain will spend the time between now and Oct 30 detaining, torturing and threatening anyone they think may protest. There will still be protesters though. You will see some violence on the part of the King of Bahrain. The protesters would like you to see it on the track, live, in full view of millions around the world.

    • Dutch,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Here’s a question for you, because some people have expressed this view in recent days and I think it ties in neatly with your words: is it better to walk away from the race now, or is it better to reinstate it, have the F1 folk turn up and give the protesters a massive worldwide platform from which to state their case?

      As you’ve said, there’s ample time between now and late October for the powers that be to target and detain anyone they earmark as a potential ringleader. With that in mind, and given that there can’t be many sponsors in the sport whose corporate social responsibility policies condone the encouragement of an oppressive regime, I’d tend to feel that cancellation is the only option. Is that a fair assessment, or is it too narrow-minded?

  3. Dutch Johnson says:

    PetrolHeadBlogger,

    My first thought was let the race in. The media exposure would be great. Foreign journalist are very tightly controlled in Bahrain.

    In reality, the GP brings worldwide prestige. 144 countries and 20 races, right? F1 is the worldwide preeminent motorsport and the GP puts Bahrain in this elite circle of countries. To bring the event back is to symbolically accord Bahrain it’s undeserved former status and to rubber stamp Bahrains use of torture and detainment against peaceful protesters.

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