There are few sports in the world where the interconnectedness of business and sport are more apparent than in Formula 1. In fact, such is the presence of business and politics in Formula 1, that coverage of the sport embraces these off-track issues. However, it is only on the rarest occasions that these off-track issues deal with matters that concern the interests of the international community at large. As it happens, these occasions have occurred quite recently, with new regulation changes in Formula 1 directed towards heightening the relationship between the expense of Formula 1 and the advances in fuel-efficient technology in an effort to lessen the environmental impact of the car industry. It is with this in mind that when the FIA issued a statement on the Friday before the Chinese Grand Prix, that Formula 1 would be racing in Bahrain, various parties openly voiced there opinion on whether this was the correct decision. To assess this, we must first outline the main parties that have provided dialogue, what concerns they address, and of these, which carry the greatest importance, and what conclusion do we make on the decision to race in Bahrain.
Even before the FIA decision was announced there had been growing concern amongst influential people involved in Formula 1 that further consideration should be given into whether or not to compete in Bahrain. However, in order to understand the context of these comments it is important to briefly outline what has occurred in Bahrain since it hosted the opening round of the 2010 Formula 1 season. In early 2011, as part of a region-wide demand for democracy amongst many Arab nations, tens of thousands of protestors invaded the Pearl Square in the Bahrain capital of Manama, demanding the fall of the ruling royal family, and the creation of a democratically elected government. However, where change was achieved in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrain was less successful with reports indicating that the Bahrain police had exerted excessive force, under the instruction of the ruling royal family and resulting in the alleged death of over 30 protestors. Not long after these incidents, Bahrain Grand Prix officials elected for the race to be postponed and following disagreements amongst teams, the race would later be cancelled from the 2011 season altogether. The tenuous hold on power in Bahrain is made all the worse by the religious make-up of the island kingdom. It is estimated that over 80% of the population is believed to be of the Shia Islamist faith. The religious differences between both faiths are for another time and another website but needless to say that many believe they’re worth fighting for. In November 2011 the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry was commissioned by the king to determine whether the police response to the protests “involved violations of international human rights law and norms”. The inquiry found that Bahrain’s information ministry and the National Security Agency had undertaken a ‘systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture’. Despite intense social unrest, the death of it’s people, the cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix and increased scrutiny from neighbouring Arab states, it came to light that employees at the Bahrain International Circuit who were involved in the protests were in breach of their contracts and dismissed from their jobs. It is actions of this kind that highlight just why the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain has been seen by many residents as symbolising the greed and elitism of the royal family.
In the lead up to the Chinese Grand Prix one of the first influential peope to voice their opinion on whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should go ahead was former Chairman of the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC) and 1996 Formula 1 World Champion Damon Hill. Speaking to the BBC, Hill stated that “What we must put above all else is what will be the penalty in terms of human cost if the race goes ahead”. Hill continued that “It would be a bad state of affairs, bad for F1, to be seen to be enforcing martial law to hold the race.” Hill’s concerns appeared to relate to the image of Formula 1 and what damage could be done to the sport by obtaining financial benefit from a nation accused of human rights attrocities upon it’s own people, and providing the international platform upon which protests, violence and possible death could arise.
The Bahrain Centre for Human rights’ Nabeel Rajab believed that the race should not take place, saying “the dictators want to tell the outside world everything is normal ” and that “F1 should not help Bahrain’s repressive leaders”. This view was shared by British Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron who said that the race “endorses and legitmises the regime”. He was not alone with 17 MPs signing a House of Commons motion calling for the race to be cancelled.
Leader of the British Labor party, Ed Miliband, while stressing that the race would show Formula 1 as supporting a nation accused of committing serious human rights, remained mindful of the security risks posed to Formula 1 personnel, many of whom are British, by effectively forcing Formula 1 teams to conduct their operations in hostile countries.
It is on these three issues; the image to Formula 1, the potential for the race to be used to endorse the ruling kingdom, and the safety of Formula 1 personnel, that was paramount to the arguments against the hosting of the Grand Prix. With the Chinese Grand Prix weekend approaching attention would shift to whether the Bahrain Grand Prix would go ahead and, if so, what were the main reasons?
On the Thursday of the Chinese Grand Prix, attention focused on the reaction of the teams and the drivers and much to the disappointment of the media, not one stepped out of line. For the drivers, all including Mark Webber remained intent on racing if needed. Christian Horner, like other team principals, indicated that the decision on whether the teams went to Bahrain was in the hands of the FIA, as they were the governing body of the sport. But their true opinion can best be summed up by BBC radio commentator and F1 expert James Allen who when asked by me whether it was fair to say that a majority of the teams did not want to go, indicated that this was the case and Tom Clarkson, working on behalf of Channel One in Australia, who said none of the team bosses would go on the record to give their opionions on Bahrain.
With this in mind, it was almost laughable that following confirmation on Friday morning from the FIA that the Bahrain Grand Prix would go ahead, and upon leaving a pre-arranged meeting convened with all the team principles, Bernie Ecclestone told the awaiting media that all the teams had no problems at all. When asked only a few seconds later by a Sky Sports reporter whether he would be attending the Bahrain Grand Prix?, Ecclestone snapped at the journalist saying “What a stupid question!” It was at this point that the reporter failed to remind Ecclestone that he does not attend every Grand Prix nor does he rarely stay for the finish and thus making it a fairly relevant question indeed. Later on in the weekend Ecclestone sat down with BBC Formula 1 presenter Jake Humphrey to address the concerns over the Bahrain race. While clearly not agreeing with the negative media surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix, Ecclestone gave a fairly candid view on the questions raised. Of most interest were the following questions:
Q: “What assurances have you been given by the FIA that it is safe and right for Formula 1 to go there?”
A: “Well really and truly in the end it’s nothing too much to do with us or the FIA. This race has been approved in October last year at the FIA World Council and it was requested by the national sporting authority in Bahrain, obviously was approved, so the only people that could do anything about it are those people that could ask it to be taken from the calendar. There would be consequences if they did that but they are the only people that can do it.”
The opening answer raises serious concerns about the priorities in Formula 1 when dealing with a rare isue of this kind. The first is that on this occasion, the commercial rights holder appear to be acting without the authority from the FIA or are so disregarding of their authority that it’s CEO, Bernie Ecclestone, chooses to make no reference of it. Secondly, is the belief that the decision of the Bahrain authorities to want to have the race is in some way an authority that the country is an appropriate place to hold a Formula 1 Grand Prix when it is those very authorities that are the subject of the perceived human rights violations and subsequent violence reported in the country itself. Finally perhaps the most dangerous statement by Ecclestone is that only the Bahrain authorities can make the decision to have the race cancelled, whom clearly do not come from an impartial perspective, and that even if they did want to, Ecclestone is quick to point out (even in a television interview) that “there would be consequences”. So not only do you leave the Bahrainis with the only authority to cancel the race, you punish them even if they, being the only authority, determine that the conditions in the country are not safe enough to operate. That system simply shows no interest in protecting the participants of the sport, but instead ensures that the commercial rights holders of Formula 1 either get a race in Bahrain, get compensation for the race being cancelled or have the right to bring legal action against Bahrain, were a terrorist attack to occur during the race weekend. The notion that the commercial rights holders and the FIA can’t simply opt to cancel the event is farcical. What Ecclestone no doubt could say is that there is no way for Formula 1 to cancel the event without incurring consequences of its own, which appears to be so remote an option that Ecclestone doesn’t acknowledge it’s existence. To emphasise the ease with which the FIA could prevent the race from going ahead, you need only listen to the words of F1 team bosses like Christian Horner who, in an interview with Lee McKenzie of the BBC during the Chinese Grand Prix weekend, in relation to the statement issued by the FIA, stated that “We have to trust in their advice. They’re closer to the situation than we are and I think their statement was fairly clear”. He further went on to say “We [Red Bull Racing] have to trust in the FIA”. So clearly, were the statement to have advised any differently then Red Bull Racing and no doubt all other teams would not be going to Bahrain. This rubbishes Ecclestone’s claim that only the Bahrain organisers can cancel the event. So what does the statement from the FIA actually say and how impartial are there alleged investigations?
While I won’t regurgitate the entire statement as this can be accessed on numerous websites, I will pull out important issues. The statement says that “The FIA must make rational decisions based on the information provided to us by the Bahraini authoritities and by the Commercial Rights Holder. In addition we have endeavoured to assess the ongoing situation in Bahrain”. In short the Bahrainis are impartial, the commercial rights holder says it’s the Bahraini’s decision, so they are both useless authorities, leaving the FIAs assessment as the only possible impartial viewpoint. But who did they consult to get this viewpoint? The statement goes on to say that a “fact-finding mission to the kingdom” was led by Jean Todt in November 2011, “meeting a large number of decision-makers and opinion formers, including elected Shia members of parliament, the president of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, ambassadors from the European Union countries, the Crown Prince, the Interior Minister and many members of the business community… All expressed their wish for the Grand Prix to go ahead in 2012”. Firstly, I would be interested to know what an ‘opinion former’ is because to be honest they sound like the kind of people committing human rights violations in Bahrain. While these people all sound nice, hardly any of them have any impartiality and the statement doesn’t specify the grounds upon which the various parties wished for the race to go ahead. For example, from an economic perspective, the asset of Formula 1 to a nation like Bahrain is almost unquestionable however from a security perspective, the hosting of the race may prove to be impossible. On the issue of safety it appears the “fact-finding mission” was lacking, because the statement shifts direction stating that “Away from the public eye, the FIA has received regular security briefings from the most senior diplomatic officials based in the Kingdom as well as from other independent experts.” Not only does it appear to suggest that the “fact-finding mission” took place in the public eye (a cornerstone of ensuring impartiality in any decision making process), it also fails to mention who these senior people are or go into any detail about the security situation in Bahrain. Instead, “the safety of the public, officials, drivers and teams”, heralded as being of primary importance at the beginning of the statement, is given all of 28 words and 1 acronym by the FIA. And it is upon that statement that the 12 teams competing in the Formula 1 World Championship uphold as the authority upon which over 500 personnel travel to Bahrain for the Grand Prix. To say that this is monstrously unsatisfactory is an understatement in the greatest sense of the word.
Returning to the interview with Ecclestone and a further question addressed to the CEO was the following:
Q: “You’ve been given assurances that Bahrain is an okay place for Formula 1 to go to at the moment?”
A: “Well I’ve not heard anything that would lead me to believe that it isn’t. I know people that live there and people that work in there on a daily basis and they say that everything is normal.”
Such is the apparent lack of knowledge on the situation in Bahrain that Ecclestone expresses the view of a couple of his friends who live and work in the country. No doubt Ecclestone’s friends in Los Angeles tell him that the city is absolutely beautiful and with no problems with gun crime or racial inequality. The notion that there was no evidence that things were not okay in Bahrain is very hard to believe as it had been widely reported in February, that protestors and police had clashed outside the Bahrain capital resulting in armoured vehicles patrolling the city on the one-year anniversary of the Pearl Square protests. Equally, at the time that it was announced that the race would be going ahead, the Bahraini youth had declared three days of rage to coincide with the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Later in the interview Ecclestone says ‘I don’t know what the problems are there because I’ve never really gone into it but it appears that there are problems”, acknowledging that even without going into the cause, he is aware of problems in the country, somewhat contradicting his earlier statement above that “everything is normal”.
On the issue of Formula 1’s image being tarnished by association with the human rights abuses in Bahrain, Ecclestone was adamant that the presence of sport should not be connected with the human rights atrocities responding that “I think the bottom line is simple. I think that we like any sport should be going to a country, we’re not political, we’re not religious, we’re nothing. We enter the country to perform with the contract that we have. It’s not up for us to decide how the people run their country and the reason that you say that maybe it was seen that it was the royal family, it wasn’t, it was the national sporting authority in that country that requested a Formula 1 event. It’s been supported by an awful lot of people in Bahrain.” While Formula 1 may not want to be seen as supporting a nation that is violating human rights, the sport has competed in China since 2004, and this has done nothing to affect the sport’s popularity. There was no denying that the promotion of the race weekend under the banner of “UniF1ed” and “Bahrain back on track” leaves a very uneasy feeling in my mind and whether intentional or not, clearly served to politicize the event. This issue was put to Mr Ecclestone in his interview with Jake Humphrey and while not addressing the promotion of the race directly, Ecclestone felt that the presence of Formula 1 could do a great deal of good for the country in allowing members of the world media to come to Bahrain and report on the country to the rest of the world. In an interview with the BBC during the Bahrain race weekend, Jean Todt also opted against commenting directly on the way the race had been promoted, reiterating that there was “nothing that could allow us to stop the race. On rational facts, it was decided there was no reason to change our mind”. So does the race being in Bahrain serve to assist the plight of the protestors or does it provide propaganda to the royal family?
During the race weekend and since it’s completion it appears almost certain that if the promotion of the event showed the intention of the Bahrain organisers to portray the nation in a positive light, this has failed completely. News reports around the world continually reported on the event alongside the condemnation from various political figures and NGOs. In fact, such was the presence of such negative response to the hosting of the race that the Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman Bin Hamada Al Khalifa held a press conference alongside Bernie Ecclestone on Friday afternoon to address growing concerns about the race. The crown prince stressed the financial importance of the event to the Bahrain economy and guaranteed that protests would not be directed towards the Formula 1 Grand Prix. On the issue that the race was being used as a political tool to further the regime, the prince acknowledged that the nation had problems and had been open about these by having an independent inquiry at the end of last year. Of significant note in this press conference was the marked change in the awareness of organized protests being conducted in Bahrain during the race weekend. The prince acknowledged that there were protests to occur on Saturday afternoon and more to occur throughout the weekend. This openness to the existence of protesting, which had in the past proved to be extremely violent, is in stark contrast to the answers from Ecclestone a week earlier. The prevalence of questions regarding anti-government protest activity and the answer from the prince that they would not be directed squarely at Formula 1 personnel was as a result of events that had occurred in Bahrain earlier that week, events that brought to light the reality of the current safety risks faced in Bahrain.
On the Wednesday night before the race weekend four members of the Force India team were caught up in a police protest while driving back to their hotels. The incident, believed to have lasted around 3 minutes, involved a petrol bomb being thrown across the highway that the car was on and tear gas being shot by police in response. Following the incident, two members within the car requested that they be allowed to return to the UK while the team took the unprecedented precaution of not participating in FP2 on Friday afternoon, to ensure that the team could leave the circuit during daylight hours for the benefit of its personnel. In interviews on Friday, team principle Bob Fernley indicated that the team remained committed to the event and supportive of the decision for the race to be held. The incident was a timely reminder that the protests in Bahrain, of which Formula 1 were well aware of before agreeing to go ahead with the race, ensured that safety in Bahrain was still a significant issue.
In looking at the claim of both sides of the argument it would appear that the decision to host the race was simply inappropriate and this should rest squarely on the grounds that Bahrain is not a stable nation to provide an appropriate degree of safety to the participants of the sport. Equally, if the race is to remain in Bahrain in the years to come then at the very least, there must be a prevention of the promoters using slogans that have clear political motivation as this only serves to draw Formula 1 in as a potential target to protestors, something which all participants and stakeholders agree, is not what the sports presence in the nation is about. Of the arguments put forward by those opposing the race, it is my opinion that the weaker points are the damage that the Bahrain race may bring to the image of Formula 1 as the weekend has appeared to have benefited the protestors far more than the royal family, as anticipated by Ecclestone in his interview at the Chinese Grand Prix. In the days after the event, the organizers have complained about the adverse media coverage on Bahrain. In this way Formula 1 has given a voice to their plight, more so than could have been possible. The other argument that appears to fall flat is that the race could generate increased protesting that could cause violence and further deaths. I think this also doesn’t carry much strength as any nation could have individuals using an international event to protest their cause. I think Ecclestone and the crown prince are right to point out that the protests are not directed at Formula 1 but instead capitalise on the attention brought by the sport. It could equally be argued that because the media are in Bahrain, the protestors don’t need to risk their lives in a bid to get the attention of the foreign media and as such, the event may in fact prevent the death of protestors. In conclusion, the event should not take place, despite my opinion that it has actually done a greater good for the cause of the protestors and in some way legitimised Formula 1 being in Bahrain. Having said that however, if the level of media attention off the track remains as intense as it was this year, the event will quickly descend into farce.
A final question put to Ecclestone by Jake Humphrey looked at the inter-connectedness between the commercial rights holders, the FIA and Bahrain to question whether any one within Formula 1 is able to be impartial on the Bahrain Grand Prix. Tellingly, Ecclestone’s response is cut from the interview but it would likely deny any such issues. In my opinion it’s one thing for the sport of Formula 1 to develop its image off elitism, wealth, glamour and fame, which is commonly known to attract the interest of people with highly suspicious backgrounds and motivations. It is only when these individuals obtain a stake in the sport that the sport’s image becomes infected and irreparably damaged. The ugly notion of a sport pursuing wealth at the expense of the safety of its own personnel is an example of such an occurrence. This portrays Formula 1 in a light far worse than its sheer presence in Bahrain ever could.
Finally I will leave you with this simple consideration which sums up why Formula 1 shouldn’t have gone to Bahrain; What if the petrol bomb had hit the Force India team car and killed it’s occupants?
Do you agree with these views? All views welcome on Racefans.