Saturday 19 February 2011

F1 not full of Middle Eastern promise

Not for the first time F1 has found itself encroaching on the front pages rather than the back in recent days, and not for the right reasons. Protests and unrest in Bahrain, against the ruling government and Khalifah royal family, have dominated news bulletins, particularly as security forces have sought at various stages to counter protesting crowds by firing on them, killing several people. And this of course gives F1 a problem, as the fraternity are due to gather at the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain for a pre-season test starting on 3 March, and then for the season's opening race on 13 March.

Bernie's current line is 'wait and see', but at the time of writing it's impossible to see how either the test or the race meeting can go ahead in Bahrain. The security risks are obvious, even if there is a period of relative calm in coming days it will only take one protester to decide that the global audience of an F1 event is too good an opportunity to miss drawing attention to their cause in an extreme fashion to give us a catastrophic outcome on several levels. In addition to any human tragedy, the legal implications (not to mention the damage to F1's image) of the event going ahead and, perish the thought, someone being killed amidst the unrest don't bear thinking about, especially since the official advice of the UK and US governments is not to travel there unless it is essential.

Further, this whole case is perhaps an inevitable consequence of F1 'following the money' via holding rounds in countries with such regimes, despite well-documented concerns about their human rights records. The financial benefits of the Bahrain round to F1 are obvious - they throw sums of money unthinkable to 'established' F1 countries at the Formula One Group for the rights to hold a race (in the case of Bahrain it's thought to be in the region of £37m annually), despite the absence even of much local demand for tickets. And the reason they do this is as an elaborate application of admittance to the 'international community', or a 'branding exercise' as the Crown Prince of Bahrain called it. Further, F1 doesn't just have a stake in terms of the race events, McLaren is 42% owned by the Bahrain government. But the flip side is that oppressive regimes have a tendency to oppress people.

That's why I hope that if/when F1 does make what seems to be an inevitable decision and step back from travelling to Bahrain, they don't insult our intelligence by claiming a moral dimension to their conclusion. To do so would be hypocritical in the extreme. The Bahraini regime, with its questionable human rights record and large under-class of slave labour, did not suddenly become oppressive this week. Bernie, Martin Whitmarsh and others aren't stupid and knew what they were letting themselves in for in Bahrain, but decided to chase the dollar anyway. And let's face it, we were happy to watch the Bahrain race every year.

And, ignoring geopolitics, the implications for F1 don't have to stop here. What if Abu Dhabi isn't far behind Bahrain? The Bahrain unrest of course follows on from similar unrest in Egypt and elsewhere. There would obviously be an impact on Abu Dhabi's ability to hold their race.

It all perhaps should serve as a reminder that if the rewards of chasing money in such countries seem too good to be true, that's because they are.


  1. Excellent blog. One added point is that is will be very hard, if not impossible, to insure the event (and the drivers, mechanics, journalists etc) now that the FCO and the US State Department, amongst others, have advised their citizens not to travel to Bahrain unless essential. And, much as we may like F1, a Grand Prix is not "essential". No insurance, no event.

  2. Good point. As I said, it's surely impossible that the race can now go ahead, so it seems incredible that Bernie's delaying confirming this. Knowing him though, the delay probably has something to do with money (probably trying to claim as much as he can of that £37m that I mentioned).