Bahrain GP in Jeopardy: F1 and Authoritarianism

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 2/19/2011 08:01:00 PM
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, heaven knows - anything goes

It's weekend feature time. I suppose that hosting a Formula One grand prix is, above all else, a vanity project. In the same way that hosting the World Cup or the Winter or Summer Olympics is a way of saying that you've arrived on the world stage, so too does having a spot on the F1 calendar. Unfortunately, however, it's another truism that vanity projects do not always make money. For instance, there were worries over even whether the Shanghai Grand Prix would get a contract extension from the F1 powers-that-be this year given its lacklustre attendance figures. And this is in the mother of all growth markets, mind you:
The Chinese Grand Prix will stay on the Formula One calendar until 2017 after the Shanghai International Circuit agreed a new deal to host the event. Attendances have decreased at the venue since the inaugural race in 2004 attracted a crowd of 240,000. Ticket prices are set to be cut to attract yet more fans while the new deal between Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management and organisers Shanghai Juss Event Management Co. is thought to be at a reduced financial rate.
Alike Shanghai which commenced operations in 2004, most of the purpose-built F1 tracks were penned by the German circuit designer Hermann Tilke--the so-called Tilkedromes. Even many of the road races that have been held recently such as the Valencia and the Singapore Grands Prix have received input from him. Hence, charges that the new circuits lack character are rife. Monopolies tend to have their detractors.

Sports-worthiness aside, something that scholars of international political economy have failed to investigate is the link between authoritarianism and new F1 venues. While there are certainly new races in places that do reasonably well on measures of democracy--Istanbul (2005), Valencia (2008), and South Korea (2010) come to mind--more are held in decidedly authoritarian confines: Malaysia (1999), Bahrain (2004), Shanghai (2004), Singapore (2008), and Yas Maria Abu Dhabi (2009). Given the large expenditures associated with putting up racetracks or organizing street races, it is likely easier to create venues in conjunction with maximum leaders (or those approaching such status).

Last season we ended with a climactic race in the desert as Sebastian Vettel became the youngest-ever F1 champion in Abu Dhabi. This year us F1 fans find ourselves in the Middle East sands amidst yet more momentous occasions. However, the excitement at the start of his season will not be on the track but in the host country of the first scheduled race, Bahrain. Cracking down on protesters usually does that. Having brought his racing circus maximus to nearly every (prosperous) corner of the globe, F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone has been there and done that. Perhaps the prospect of sports event cancellation due to old-fashioned "political risk" in Bahrain may yet be a novel experience.

That is, does F1 with its bevy of Western teams, sponsors, and drivers view popular uprisings with an attitude of "the show must go on," or are there political sensitivities that get in the way? Here's Bernie Ecclestone:
Bernie Ecclestone has expressed hope that the bloody unrest in Bahrain will "blow away" by next week, when he plans to decide whether to pull the opening race of the season. Formula One's commercial rights holder sounded more confident early on Friday that the Bahrain grand prix would go ahead despite the protests in Manama, which have put the race on 13 March at serious risk. But amid reports of renewed unrest in Manama's Pearl Square, with shots fired and reports of at least 20 injuries, Ecclestone later said the situation remained fluid.

"From a realistic point of view it appears that things are changing hourly," he said. "I feel the most important thing now is to wait until after the weekend, to see what happens over the next few days, and then make a decision next Tuesday or Wednesday."

Ecclestone, having sought to expand the Formula One calendar into new, profitable parts of the world in recent years, sidestepped questions about whether the sport should travel to countries that meet protests for democratic change with violent crackdowns. "It seems as if people thought it was democratic a few weeks ago," he said. "We have never, ever, ever been involved in religion and politics. We don't make decisions based on those things..."

"Let's hope this all just blows away. In these parts there have always been skirmishes. This is perhaps a bit more than that." The teams say they will follow guidance from Ecclestone and motor sport's world governing body, the FIA. Speaking on behalf of the Formula One Teams Association after a two-hour meeting, Red Bull's team principal, Christian Horner, said: "It's obviously a really difficult situation in Bahrain.

"But we have complete trust in Bernie, FOM [Formula One Management] and the FIA to make the right decision. They will only send us there if it is safe. It would be a great shame to lose the race, but it's not the teams' decision - it's down to the promoter. Bernie and the FIA will have much more information than us and we will trust their decisions..."

"Consultations are taking place on the whole logistic possibilities and what is happening in Bahrain," Fota's general secretary, Simone Perillo, said. "If things don't calm down then we'll have to consider the possibilities." If the Bahrain race was cancelled, the Melbourne grand prix on 27 March would be the first in a truncated 19-race season, but it is not thought that Ecclestone would be out of pocket, with the costs of up to $60m (£37m) in race fees being swallowed by the Bahraini organisers.

But cancellation would be a blow for both the sport and Bahrain, which became the first Middle East country to host a round of the championship in 2004 in an attempt to transform itself into a tourist destination as well as a business hub. While Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha have increasingly sought to attract a range of world-class sporting events as means to showcase their potential, Bahrain has relied on the annual grand prix.
As its energy reserves dwindle, Bahrain has sought to diversify itself as a banking, tourism, and services destination alike Dubai (Abu Dhabi and the Qataris have reserves up the wazoo). The response so far from Bernie Ecclestone is an automotive spin on the non-intervention in the affairs of other countries ("we don't do politics"). However, as a cash-spinner or at least as an event that would clearly not take place with considerable cooperation from Bahrain's rulers, F1 is implicated quite deeply by its previous actions.

While many F1 bigwigs prefer that the political mess just "blow away," Renault driver Nick Heidfeld has perhaps heaped trouble on himself by honestly suggesting that F1 should be more responsive to current events:
Nick Heidfeld says Formula One's rulers should be sensitive to the Bahraini people when it comes to whether the grand prix gets the go ahead. The island kingdom was again rocked by further unrest on Friday as the army and police moved in on anti-Government demonstrators who earlier in the day had attended the funerals of three protesters.

Formula One is undoubtedly on edge at the prospect of visiting a country at the centre of such political unrest and uncertainty. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has promised a decision will be made by next Wednesday at the latest as to whether next month's season-opening race is given the green light or cancelled.

Heidfeld, this week confirmed as a Renault driver in the absence of the injured Robert Kubica, feels there is more at stake than just the safety of drivers, team personnel, media and fans. "It is not only down to how it is for the drivers, but how it is to the general public, to everybody who visits, to all the spectators and whether the risk is too high," said Heidfeld. "It's not just about the safety of those involved, but being sensitive to what is going on in the country."
Former champion Damon Hill once said of F1: "It's all about the wonga [money], isn't it?" I guess we'll find out more come Wednesday. As the graphic above taken from the event website suggests, people fuel their passion in different ways.

UPDATE: Ecclestone now says he will leave it in the hands of the local organizers. More specifically, the House of Khalifa's heir apparent. What's more, rumour has it that some F1 teams are thinking boycott if the event pushes through:
Ecclestone told BBC Sport that Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa was best placed to decide. "He will decide whether it's safe for us to be there," Ecclestone said. "I've no idea. I'm not there, so I don't know." He added: "We won't advise people to go unless it's safe..."

He said Bahrain could be moved to another date later in the year if the race in March was called off. Ecclestone said a decision on whether the race could go ahead would be made on Tuesday. "Let's hope it'll be all right," he said. His comments come as the Sunday Times reported that some teams would boycott the grand prix if it went ahead. F1 insiders have told BBC Sport that the teams' contractual commitments to Ecclestone's Formula 1 Management company mean they would be obliged to attend the race if it is held.
It's hard for some to let go. Still, I very much doubt whether Ecclestone's eagerness to avoid political entanglements is best served by placing the decision of whether the race goes on in the hands of someone affiliated with the party with the most vested political interests. You can argue though that the race won't proceed if the kingdom believes it cannot put its best face forward, but the notion of sporting impartiality is not obvious, to say the least [!]