Bahrain Brutality, But F1 Show Must Go On There

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 6/04/2011 12:23:00 PM
A few months ago I covered how the so-called Arab Spring protests in Bahrain scuttled the first Formula One race of 2011 that was to be held there on 13 March. While the local race organizers and F1 powers-that-be did not rule out holding the event at a later date in 2011, let's just say that many were sceptical that the race would indeed be held given current circumstances.

And so we find ourselves in the same place a few months later. Protester fatalities are still occurring that various reports put at more than two dozen. While martial law has recently been lifted, the Shiite majority still chafes under Sunni rule and protests are still ongoing. Yet both the local organizers and the FIA have now decided that "national reconciliation" demanded that the race be held. First we have the FIA statement:
Following a fact-finding mission undertaken at the request of FIA President Jean Todt, FIA Vice-President Carlos Gracia visited Bahrain on 31 May, 2011 to assess the situation in the country. Meetings were conducted with the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Bahrain Motor Federation and Bahrain International Circuit, as well as other national and international organisations including Mr. Tariq Al Saffar at the National Institute of Human Rights. It should be noted that the recent announcement by the King of Bahrain has established a political dialogue and reconciliation process.

After considering all the factors and taking into consideration all stakeholders' concerns, the WMSC unanimously agreed to reinstate the Bahrain Grand Prix in the 2011 FIA Formula One World Championship.

This decision reflects the spirit of reconciliation in Bahrain, which is evident from the strong support the race receives from the government and all major parties in Bahrain, including the largest opposition group, all of whom endorse the F1 grand prix and motorsport in the country.

The WMSC [World Motor Sports Council] feels that reinstating the grand prix is a means of helping to unite people as the country looks to move forward, and also recognises the commitment made by the F1 teams, their employees and families, and personnel associated with the championship including the local team of volunteers who are so vital to the event.
And so now the final race of the season will be in December, the inaugural Indian Grand Prix. Meanwhile, the Bahrainis also made similar-sounding noises about "national reconciliation":
The head of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) today welcomed the decision of the FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) World Motor Sport Council to reintroduce the Bahrain Grand Prix to the 2011 calendar. The decision, announced by the FIA after the Council’s meeting in Barcelona, follows a FIA delegation visit to Bahrain to assess the situation in country this week.

Zayed R. Alzayani, Chairman of the BIC, said: “This is welcome news for all of Bahrain. As a country we have faced a difficult time, but stability has returned; with businesses operating close to normal, the State of National Safety lifted and countries removing travel restrictions. “Collectively, we are in the process of addressing issues of national and international concern, and learning lessons from the recent past. By the time the Grand Prix arrives we will be able to remind the world about Bahrain at its best.

“The Bahrain Grand Prix has always been a source of national pride and it is an event than transcends politics. Not only does it receive strong support from the Government, but also from all major parties in Bahrain, including our largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, who yesterday endorsed both the BIC and motor-racing in Bahrain. Importantly, it will also offer a significant boost to the economy. The Grand Prix attracts 100,000 visitors, supports 3,000 jobs and generates around $500m of economic benefit. Its positive effect will be felt throughout the country.
The evidence for the usual plea to set politics aside is the major Shia opposition Al Wefaq party endorsing the staging of this grand prix. Then again, you have to wonder how closely Al Wefaq represents the more demonstrably opposed voices to continued Sunni rule. In short, did the authorities consult those most clearly associated with the protesters? There is, for instance, an online activist presence petitioning that the race not go forward with over 320,000 signatures already.

As the video clip in this BBC article points out, F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone management company FOA stands to lose £21 million if the race isn't held, while the various teams would lose £24M. Ferrari alone it is said would lose £7M. Although Ecclestone says money has nothing to do with the decision to go on with the race later in the year, I leave it to you to figure that one out.

Meanwhile, two of the more conscientious F1 drivers are expressing dismay: retired 1996 champion Damon Hill and Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber (who already discouraged racing there earlier this year):
Before the announcement of Friday's decision, Red Bull driver Mark Webber had gone public with his opposition. "When people in a country are being hurt, the issues are bigger than sport," the Australian wrote on Twitter. Former world champion Damon Hill had expressed his personal view that F1 "will forever have the blight of association with repressive methods to achieve order" if it returns to Bahrain this season.
What price participation? BBC sports commentator Jonathan Legard believes F1 teams must dutifully follow where ringleader Ecclestone goes, public relations folly or otherwise:
The teams won't be happy but Bernie Ecclestone is the man who pays their bills and so they will go along with it. You risk running into another storm of civil unrest. Martial law has only been lifted there a couple of days ago and you wonder what Formula 1 is gaining by this return.
The Atlantic also has some good insights on this decision. With many more months till the race is held, this story is not yet over, and overt targeting of the race by protesters is certainly possible.

June 7 UPDATE: The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) is not keen on racing in Bahrain. The emphasis of its complaint is on rearranging the calendar yet again, with the season being extended so late in the year through the reinstatement of the Bahrain event and the Indian Grand Prix being moved into December. Since such rearranging requires team assent, it looks like Bahrain is to be struck off the calendar (again). Meanwhile, the politicos have chimed in on the distastefulness of it all:
The FIA effectively has no choice but to accede to the teams' demands - although its World Council voted through the date changes last week, it did so without the full written agreement of the teams, which is constitutionally required. The FIA based its decision on a report written by one of its vice-presidents, Spaniard Carlos Gracia, who visited Bahrain. The report has now been leaked online.

MPs used a debate on the situation in the Middle East on Tuesday to criticise the FIA's decision to reschedule the race. Sir Menzies Campbell, the Lib Dems' former foreign affairs spokesman, said the decision was "simply shameful". Foreign Secretary William Hague added: "Formula 1 has not done itself any good by what has been announced. The important thing is to encourage all sides to get back into a real dialogue."
Whoever hatched this scheme must be under duress right about now.