I originally wrote this piece on the day of the Bahrain GP for the International Political Forum - check it out here!
The F1 world exists in a bubble of its own. Although highly political, its politics are usually internal, and as such the domestic politics of the host nation rarely rates a mention. Granted, (by and large, with exceptions of course) most of the races are in stable states, and so voicing of political concern is either verbal or doesn’t make the international news.
That is why the case of today’s race in Bahrain is very interesting indeed.
Just briefly – the Bahraini race was the result of the work of King’s son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who thought it would be a great way to put Bahrain on the international radar. It worked wonderfully in doing so, and its first race in 2004 was a huge success (according to the BBC at any rate), both domestically and internationally.
The problems only really started appearing in early 2011, when the island nation got swept with Arab Spring fever, and the Shia majority began protesting in earnest against the ruling Sunni minority. Their main issue is with the human rights record of the government (which, as the Bassiouni report showed, is a spotty record indeed).
The race was cancelled that year. A brief roundup of those events by the BBC can be found here.
So where does that leave Bahrain and Formula 1 now?
Well, media stories are filled with visual depictions of angry protestors holding anti-F1 signs and chanting slogans such as “Your race is a crime,” and “No, no to the blood Formula.”
Bahraini leaders are downplaying the unrest, with the Crown Prince insisting the event will be safe for teams and spectators. However, MP’s within the government requested that the event again be cancelled. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Bahrain said: “We request you cancel the Grand Prix. It is likely to attract as much negative publicity as last year.”
The world motorsport’s governing body the FIA and the promoters Formula One Management (FOM), caught in the middle, have simply said the event will go ahead.
CEO of FOM, the infamous Bernie Ecclestone, wants to keep the sport as far away from the politics as possible, saying to the BBC: “We don’t want to see trouble. We don’t want to see people arguing and fighting about things we don’t understand, because we really don’t understand. Some people feel it’s our fault there are problems.”
“We’re not here, or we don’t go anywhere, to judge how a country is run”, although he did also mention that he thought the government was “stupid” to put the race on, as people will use it [emphasis added] as a platform for protesting.
Bernie is right in a way; trying to figure out which side is right or wrong never ends well. There are too many shades of grey.
What the true question is about though, is how much of a role as Formula 1 plays in domestic and global politics. Much of the media focus has been around the protests, whether Formula One as an event should be in Bahrain, trying to figure out if there is a “morally” correct side to be on.
The sad fact of the matter is if Formula 1 hadn’t come to Bahrain, the country wouldn’t rate a mention in any international paper. It certainly doesn’t appear to have done so, especially not alongside the even more unfortunate tragedies of Egypt and Syria.
Formula 1 is both a sport, and a business. From a business sense, no, it isn’t desirable to be associated with or seen to be friends with a government that is denying its citizens human rights. But sport is a common language. Like music, sport has an uncanny ability to transcend politics and bring people together. Granted, this isn’t the Football World Cup, but it is a huge international event, with lots of focus on a nation where the battles are usually forgotten.
It is understandable that protestors are upset that the Formula 1 circus is coming to town – they are likely to be upset at many of the ruling party’s initiatives. But the race can be seen as an opportunity for their nation to bring their issues to the attention of the international media. Not that this is what Bernie Ecclestone wants, but Formula 1 doesn’t have to find the answers. It is only a sporting event after all, not the mediation arm of the United Nations.
No, Formula 1 doesn’t have all the answers. What it does have is an amazing capacity to draw the attention of millions of people towards various places, and in doing so, highlight the goings on in that state.
It is that opportunity, that captive audience, that international focus. That is the power of Formula 1.
Some might see sport as a frivolity, but it has an important role to play – in its own unique way – in the journey of every nation.
After all, the Formula 1 coming to town is one the main reasons we are all talking about the plight today anyway, isn’t it?