Wednesday 15 October 2014

Rights and wrongs

Following F1 it often can feel that you need as much knowledge of geopolitics, foreign policy and the international human rights movement as the sport's esoteric matters. And this in a pursuit that at its core is as simple as which car can complete a proscribed distance most quickly.

But it can be and frequently is turned into more, often much more, than that. Agonising over the countries the sport visits - whether it should be keeping such company - is a regular feature these days. And the long wrestled over first visit to Russia that took place last weekend was merely the latest case.

Vladimir Putin's appearance, and the reasons for it,
were predictable
"GranPrixRussia2014 winners" by -
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons -
I'll admit that the multi-faceted nature of F1, including the notorious political dimension, is for me part of the appeal. But when it reaches the politics of outside of the sport's boundaries it even from my perspective becomes rather wearing. Equally though it's unavoidable - everything is connected to everything else. Of course, at such moments we often hear the 'don't mix sport and politics' line. Would that it were but it's not the world we live in. Particularly not in a game wherein national governments are more and more footing the (vast) bill.

Sunday's pictures during the Russian Grand Prix didn't leave much to the imagination on that one, and I suppose if some good came out of it all it was in showing how absurd, or at best naive, the sport and politics shouldn't be mixed line is. Russian President Vladimir Putin's presence on the world TV feed, even appearing in the podium anteroom, a sort of appearance which I struggle to recall an equivalent of before, rather underlined it. The F1 race was being used by someone who in many eyes is a contentious figure as a means of lending himself greater legitimacy, and it could easily have been predicted that would be so.

That Bernie has in this followed the money at the apparent disregard of just about any other consideration should not be a surprise to us. It's what he does. It's not at all new either, given we can wind back through the decades passed to find that this sport on Bernie's watch was last out and first back into apartheid South Africa (and as if to underline the point F1 subsequently turned its back on the country pretty much as soon as it became respectable).

Indeed it can all be self-multiplying, as inflated fees can often be extracted from countries that are pariahs more easily, given they're likely to be more keen for the reflected respectability from hosting a high profile international sport event. Add in the greater importance of hosting fees to F1's financial model lately and the situation is exacerbated. Add to that they are bloated to such an extent that governments are one of the few entities that can afford them, and thus the proximity to the actions of the regime is more close, and it is exacerbated further.

I have argued on this site that having a Grand Prix in Russia is, in itself, a good thing for the sport, though I do not ignore that many things are done in the Russian state's name that cannot be defended. And one of the reasons why I wasn't quite as vocal on the matters of morality of a Russian Grand Prix as I had been with previous contentious races, particularly Bahrain's, was that - in something that is more of a condemnation of the sport than a defence - if we were to start ditching F1 races on human rights grounds by my reckoning we'd have at least four to knock off before we got to Russia.

Bernie Ecclestone (right) has long followed the money
"Al'Khalifa Putin Ecclestone" by -
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via
Wikimedia Commons -
To take one issue - one that I heard referred to a few times last weekend - of Russia's recent legislation prohibiting any 'positive mention of homosexuality' in the presence of minors, in my view the legislation is impossible to defend. But there are three host countries on the current calendar wherein homosexuality is illegal. These are the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi), Malaysia and Singapore (in the last case for men only). In the United Arab Emirates it is potentially punishable by death; in Malaysia by whipping and 20 years in prison. Yet every year the fraternity - including many of those vocal on Russia I'd wager - trots into those places without the tiniest hesitation in its step. I could be mischievous and point out that Texas State - the host of our next race - still hasn't repealed anti-sodomy laws on its books although they were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. I could be really mischievous and point out that Britain had up until as late as 2003 legislation in Section 28 that from what I can tell wasn't too dissimilar to the current Russian version. It's reported that some schools have latterly reintroduced it. Perhaps it shows the problems that can arise when one seeks to draw lines.

As for the tensions in Ukraine and allegations of Russia's contribution to it, while some may consider it a straightforward matter I've heard it argued too with vociferousness that the narrative presented predominately in the west on it is rather partial. Certainly it doesn't appear beyond dispute.

In this case though a lot of the collateral damage to F1's image it seems was related to profile. Russia is a large - and powerful - country, its leader (the one that turned up) having a high recognition - and infamy - factor. While for any of the three countries mentioned above I doubt many from outside the countries themselves could name a politician from there; nor is it likely that there is an individual therein so personally associated with the country's abuses. But certainly the argument of principle becomes weaker if it is applied more readily in some cases than in others.

Possibly as Joe Saward noted the main problem here was one of timing; perhaps if all had waited another 12 months for matters to cool down the damage would have been less. But such a thing is easier said than done. The race deal was done back in 2010, and a delay would inevitably have been viewed as a snub and a loaded one.

It's odd that there has been so much focus on F1 too. International football games be they European Championship qualifiers or Champions League games continue to take place in Russia unabated; British Airways continues to land in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I'm not aware of much pressure being brought to bear on those. But then again, as we know and as outlined F1 has a bit of a previous for this. It stands to reason it gets less benefit of any doubt.

But that the race went ahead should not be a surprise to us either, and not merely because Bernie is not one for turning when it comes to pursuing cheques. It's also that to my knowledge a Grand Prix has never been cancelled on moral grounds.

Yes, as you may be shouting at this point, the Bahrain race of 2011 was indeed canned, but that officially was on the basis of security and Bernie didn't waste any time in reinstating it (indeed, he tried to reschedule it in the same season). South Africa we've mentioned, but that race being shunned owed to commercial pressure.

As Dieter Rencken pointed out too, if Bernie/FOM isn't going to be doing the stopping, the FIA's hands are tied also as it has an apolitical mandate. It can only postpone or cancel events on security grounds for which it relies upon guidelines issued by foreign offices. Which wasn't forthcoming in this case. And Russia and Ukraine both are full FIA members thus it's hard for the organisation to draw a distinction between them. As for the F1 teams they are committed to participate in a full FIA/FOM-framed championship so they can't really do much either, beyond exert pressure in private.

So we're at an impasse. Of the sport's triangle of power one point won't do anything and two points it seems largely can't. And you suspect that whatever the rights and wrongs of each of these cases of dubious F1 hosts, perception is everything and at the brand level the sport is being harmed. You wonder also at the broadest level where the line would be drawn. That Azerbaijan is to land on the itinerary in 2016 suggests we continue on the same path (here's my view on that race written for

I'm put in mind of the team principals' press conference that took place earlier this year in Hungary, wherein after several minutes of ducking and weaving on the matter of race hosts, someone asked 'Would you accept a Grand Prix in North Korea?' A good question - as yet unanswered.


  1. Well written, thanks for that.

    This is my first year watching F1 and I am really surprised the 'state' that things are in.. What a soap opera!

  2. Welcome to the world of F1 Zan, it never stops or won't until Bernie retires!