Bahrain fiasco shows exactly where F1's priorities lie

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2011, 12:00am

Sport and politics is a well-worn theme; sport and revolution less so. The cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix was a big shock to the Formula One community. Formula One spends all its energies on politics within the sport and when the outside world interrupted its well-oiled juggernaut, confusion reigned. This megabucks sport-cum-industry is used to running the show and telling others what to do.

The powers that be in F1 didn't cover themselves in glory over the Bahrain affair. As revolution spread across Egypt and unrest among other Middle Eastern countries including Bahrain, F1 did nothing. Like all things in the sport, the reason lay in one direction - money.

The Bahrain ruling family shelled out a lot of cash for the right to host a grand prix. Some reports suggested it was as much as US$37 million in race fees. There was also speculation that a premium had been paid for it to be the first race on the calendar, although this was disputed by Bernie Ecclestone, the sports commercial rights holder.

Either way it was a lot of money to lose. As the disturbances mounted, so did the pressure for cancellation and yet Ecclestone sat on his hands. He may dispute this, but many feel Ecclestone did nothing so as not to have to bear the costs of cancellation. In the end, the royal family blinked first.

Even without this move, it's doubtful many teams would have gone. There were safety and financial reasons for their reluctance, but for many it was refreshing case of morality and ethics.

Driver Mark Webber, always a voice of sanity in the sport, brought a touch of perspective to things even before the announcement. 'When you hear of people losing their lives, this is a tragedy,' he said. 'It's probably not the best time to go there for a sporting event. They have bigger things, bigger priorities.'

Ecclestone has other values. When asked whether F1 should go to countries that cracked down on protests with violence he had this to say about Bahrain: 'It seems as if people thought it was democratic a few weeks ago. We have never, ever, ever been involved in religion and politics. We don't make decisions based on those things.'

The problem is that politics and religion are all about life, and sport doesn't live in a vacuum. Think about the sporting ban in South Africa during the apartheid era. Despite the rebel tours and fierce debate it was always the right thing to do. Sport is a powerful propaganda tool, especially when that sport is as powerful and global as F1.

In many cases it is used as an advertising tool for a country, bringing in tourists and business by raising the profile of a place. But it can also confer legitimacy to a crooked regime. As Formula One's axis moves away from Europe and towards the Middle East and Asia, it's something the sport has to take a long hard look at.

There's money to be made in these fertile markets. Governments are keen to spend unlike the private European ventures; eager to invest in the reflected prestige the F1 circus brings. But taking their dollars ties you to them, and what reflects badly on a partner government reflects badly on the sport.

Ethics and F1 aren't always comfortable bedfellows. A look at the calendar shows the championship heading to countries that have less than spotless human rights records - Malaysia, China, Turkey and Singapore to name four.

In Abu Dhabi, the circuit was built by labourers on terms close to slave labour and housed in the most basic accommodation.

The subject of course isn't black and white and what is acceptable to some is an outrage to others. What is worrying from Formula One's point of view is the powers that be don't seem to have a principled view over what is happening in Bahrain. While the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile comes down hard on cheating and spying within the sport, it has no moral compass when considering matters in the wider world.

It seems money is the overriding factor in trying to reschedule the Bahrain race later in the season. In what has become a farce, Ecclestone seemed first to suggest it could be put into the three-week August break that F1 enjoys. Apart from the rest it gives the teams from a punishing schedule, there's 40-degree heat at that time of year in the desert.

Now the push is on to squeeze it in at the end of the season, perhaps as the penultimate race. That though might mean pushing the Brazilian Grand Prix back a week. I can't imagine how annoying that must be for the organisers of the Sao Paulo race, but money is the factor that is driving this thinking, not logistics.

Of course, this planning might be rendered irrelevant by what former British prime minister Harold Macmillan described as 'events, dear boy, events'.

Now with further unrest in Bahrain and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, sending in troops, governments are advising citizens not to travel to Bahrain.

The World Motorsport Council has given Bahrain a deadline of May to decide whether it can hold the grand prix later this season. Surely that is putting the cart in front of the horse. It is the F1 leadership who should be telling Bahrain what is going to happen, not the other way around.

That message should be 'put your house in order, find national harmony, and we'll see you next year'.

We have never been involved in religion and politics. We don't make decisions based on those things

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone on the sport going to repressive countries

Pole position

The amount in US dollars the Bahrain ruling family is reputed to have paid in fees to host a Formula One grand prix: $37m