Will the 2012 Bahrain GP take place?
Sadly, this week’s build-up to the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai is dominated instead by talk of an altogether different race: the F1 GP of Bahrain scheduled to take place the following week. But will it actually happen?
Bahrain dropped off the calendar at short notice in 2011 after the outbreak of civil unrest left teams feeling unsafe in the country and the UK government advising against non-essential visits which in turn made key factors like insurance coverage for the teams, staff and equipment a serious problem. In the end the Bahraini organisers themselves were put in the position of requesting a postponement that eventually became an outright cancellation.
Will the same happen in 2012?
There certainly seems to be pressure building behind the scenes with more and more F1 personalities such as former world champion Damon Hill speaking out against holding the Bahrain Grand Prix while unrest is still a serious problem in the country. Many fans have also been vocal about holding the race under these circumstances, saying that it’s immoral for F1 to hold the race in these circumstances, that the sport has to show an ethical backbone and cannot just remain silent about the suppression of opposition in the country.
While team managers are not speaking out publicly, they’ve been anonymously reported in the press as being very against holding the race in a country where the presence of the support could be perceived as support for the ruling royal family and therefore opposed by protesters. According to the media reports, teams have issued their staff with two sets of tickets out of China for this weekend: one going to Bahrain, and the other routing home via Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Oman in the event of cancellation.
To be honest, I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the prospect of going to Bahrain and the whole thing going disastrously wrong. If something does happen then it could be the defining moment for the sport of our age. But I’m not really sure that there’s any real choice.
First of all, the ‘moral’ aspect, that F1 shouldn’t go to a country suppressing its population. This really does require F1 to take an ethical standpoint on the situation, and what expertise and standing does a motorsport competition have to do that? If the UK government labelled the country immoral, unethical or evil then that would be another thing, but it’s not for Bernie Ecclestone, Jean Todt or the rest of the F1 scene to hand down judgements on countries recognised internationally and still regarded as legitimate trade partners by the UK and everywhere else.
If we’re expected to take this stand because of the suppression of opposition and the lack of legitimate democracy in the country, then surely there should be even more qualms about this weekend’s race in China? And if we don’t want the sport to go anywhere where it’s not going to be fulsomely welcomed by all the local population, then how can we justify going to a highly split Circuit of the Americas in Austin, in a country that as a whole is at the very best profoundly indifferent to whether F1 ever again turns a wheel in the US?
What about the operational angle? The Grand Prix is a sitting duck for protests, meaning that the Bahrain government will have to ramp up security to an extreme degree or face the appalling prospect of someone breaking into the facility to stage a suicidal protest of a terrorist attack. In many ways this is the most terrifying, dreadful prospect facing F1 in ten days’ time. But if cast-iron security was really a must-have for sporting events, then we certainly wouldn’t be holding the Olympics in the UK in 2012. Just this weekend we saw the chaos that a single person was able to cause to the Boat Race, and there have been security breaches at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in years past. Does that mean the UK should be struck off the calendar because it can’t assure the safety of drivers? What about Brazil, with its notorious crime around the São Paulo area that has seen team personnel and even drivers robbed and car-jacked in recent years on their way to and from the circuit – should we say adiós to Interlagos?
And then – perhaps more importantly in the circumstances – is the business side. The Bahrain government has invested huge sums into the Sakhir International Circuit, all based on the contract that assured them the Grand Prix races to recoup their money from. If F1 cancels out of the races, then who is going to pay for the ticket sale refunds and pick up the rest of the tab for the original construction? Bahrain certainly won’t want to and it would be amazing if their arrangement with the FIA didn’t give them recourse to sue F1 for breach of contract. Are team bosses and the FIA really happy to pay up tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds? What about other motor racing events scheduled for the year such as the GP2 support race and the FIA World Endurance Championship? And how are the fans going to react when it emerges that the FIA is handing over huge sums to the Bahrain government for the cancellation, which will merely help it fund its current suppression activities in return for nothing in exchange except our own self-righteous sense of moral superiority?
It’s for all these arguments that I still find it hard to really believe that the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain will be postponed or cancelled, despite the building pressure from within and also externally from the media and politicians. Unless something happens in the meantime to turn a chronic unrest situation into an acute crisis, there simply isn’t the one overriding factor to stop the event from proceeding. Last year that acute factor was the breaking out of mass protests, including occupation of the area around the hotel where many F1 and GP2 teams were staying, and the Bahraini army action taken against the encampment that left teams with little choice except to catch the first flight out. It even meant the Bahrain authorities had to back down and forced into requesting the cancellation, which left them holding the financial fall-out as well. But this year so far at least there is no such clear and immediate danger on which to base the decision, which makes it a lot more difficult to work out the right thing to do.
If nothing else emerges in Bahrain in the next few days, the momentum and inertia of carrying on with the original plan will tend to win out over the effort of changing course. Much as I can’t say I’m personally happy with that decision or with the situation as a whole, to be honest, it’s the reality as things stand.
Lest anyone think that I’m an amoral apologist for foreign regimes, let me just wrap up this piece with one final comment. Rather than be placed in such ethical and business dilemmas in the future, how about the FIA and FOM simply look properly before they draft up any new contracts in future, and evaluate what they’re leaping into before getting dazzled by the dollar signs on the cheques being waved under their noses? We’ve seen money win out over holding the race at much-loved venues in France, Germany and Italy; even the incomparable Spa-Francorchamps is threatened with relegation to bi-annual status in order to clear the way for F1 heading to Russia in the near future, which says it all about the governing bodies’ priorities at the moment. I for one would be very happy never to have such a crisis situation ever again in what – for all its inevitable business aspects – is really still supposed to be a sport at heart.
Yes, that’s a hollow laugh you hear as I sign off.