On F1 and Bahrain – By Alex Stockler

24 Apr

Last weekend was the Bahrain Grand Prix. Normally, this would pass the majority of people by. But, due to the protests, infringements of human rights and other symptoms of the ‘Arab Spring’, more people than normal have been paying attention to events at the Sakhir circuit. But should the hundreds of people involved in the Formula 1 circus have been there at all? The events taking place in Bahrain are well reported by many news outlets, what I want to do is provide some facts that the casual observer may not know that have certainly muddied the waters for the decision makers of the sport. Very few people were expecting the race to take place (myself included) and the fact that it has casts a shadow over the sport to which I, and many others, dedicate so much of our spare time. It makes me ashamed to be a fan.

Money & Contracts

Formula 1 is about money. Any old schmo with a passing interest in sport knows that.  Circuits pay tens of millions of pounds for the right to host a Grand Prix. As is normal in transactions of this magnitude, water-tight contracts are drawn up. A simple word from Bernie will not solve work. Having said that, his pre-race soundbite that he “cannot cancel the race” and that the only way that the race could be cancelled would be for the Bahraini sports authorities to ask the FIA to cancel the race. This, in my opinion, is a flat out lie – maybe technically true, but he holds more than enough influence to convince them to cancel the race. He did it in 2011 and he could do it again.

But why didn’t the teams insist on not going? They’re decent human beings, most of them – Schumacher and Alonso? Meh… Who knows what they are. The answer comes down to money. All of the big teams (that ‘make’ F1) are all partially owned or heavily sponsored by Arab companies. McLaren are partially owned by the one of the Bahraini government’s investment companies. Ferrari? They have the words ‘Abu Dhabi’ plastered over their cars. Williams have just signed a large partnership with Qatar. If they had not gone they would have lost a large tranche of sponsorship. A loss like that would be devastating to the accounts of some of the teams

It is said that F1 goes where the money is. Never has that been more true and let us not forget that Formula 1 is at its core a business. Some would say it is closer to a business than a sport…

Sports as politics

In the lead up to the Grand Prix every other day a quote appeared about how sports are, by their very nature, a-political and thus it didn’t matter that they were going, as long as it was safe – because they take part in an a-political activity, they weren’t supporting either side.

This is, quite simply, rubbish.

Look at the countries which have joined the F1 calendar recently: China, Russia, Korea – F1 is seen as a political badge of honour. It is intrinsically linked with politics in countries like Bahrain. Politicians give out the trophies, the races are funded by the government and high powered politicians throw lavish parties for the great and the good. The man who runs the circuit (more on him later) wore a hat saying “Unif1ed” – a phrase making the, false, stipulation that F1 was bringing the country together. False propaganda on the behalf of the government.

Safety

For the team bosses, safety was always the number 1 priority. They had to be sure that all of their staff were going to be safe in travelling to a place on the verge of civil war. Safety assurances were constantly given by the FIA before the race. Drivers came out and said that ‘they trusted the FIA’. There was one slight problem. These safety assurances were given by the government and sports associations of Bahrain (all, I might add, are seriously influenced by, if not run by, the government). The FIA delegates that went to survey the situation in Bahrain were shown around by government representatives. The teams could hardly get an impression of the situation from the press as the government refused visas to many journalists!

Two massive tools

Just a quick note about two people who said things that, in my mind, are so comical that I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. First is Zayed R Al-Zayani, the chairman of the Bahrain Circuit. Amongst his many obscene quotes – two stand out: Last month, he implied that Bahrain was as safe as Silverstone (home of the British GP). He said that no extra security would be required. This offends me both as an Englishman and an F1 fan to the very core. I should point out that despite all the security guarantees, members of the Force India team were caught up in protests and had petrol bombs thrown over their car. Safe indeed. Yes Mr Alzayani, I’m sure you’d see that on the M40. Second – after this happened he said that he doesn’t control the police and that he “has a race to run” – no sympathy at all.

Second on the block is Bernie Ecclestone, not only for letting this race happen but also for what he said after the race about Bahrain having a long future on the F1 calendar (he said it will stay forever) – even if he intended to give it a permanent contract, he knows how unpopular this race was and should not have said it. Bernie is F1 – he is dragging it, and the brand, through the mud.

Whilst I think it is very interesting to hear the facts that haven’t been publically presented by the press (and the arguments that the F1 management use to justify going there both to themselves and to the public) the simple fact of the matter is this. Initially peaceful protests (they are not so peaceful anymore) were completely quashed by the Bahraini ruling classes. The brutality of the Bahraini regime should not be in anyway endorsed by anyone (note how the other Arab countries are hardly rushing to their defense!). Whether Bernie Ecclestone, Jean Todt (the head of the FIA) or any of the team principles like it or not, F1 is used as a political tool.

They should not have goneby doing so they have, in the eyes of many, rubber stamped the actions of the Bahraini regime and they should be ashamed of themselves.

Photograph: Mazen Mahdi/EPA

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