Even for a life-long fan, Formula 1 like most sports today can seem a little unjust if analysed from a moral standpoint. Essentially it revolves around millionaire playboys racing in circles for a couple hours in cars that literally guzzle down over 2million litres of fuel every season while Oil reserves become increasing scarce, fuel prices rise and the poor get poorer.
Generally, though the sight and sound of V8 engines powering down a long straight is enough to dispel any moral concerns, at least until the chequered flag. However as good a race as Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix was, the action on the track for once wasn’t enough to quell the feeling that something a little more unjust than usual was taking place.
Since the Bahrain uprising began last February, there have been continuous reports of severe human rights violations. An estimated 70 people have died so far and taking Bahrain’ small 1.5million population into account, that’s the equivalent of almost 3,000 people dying in the UK or near 15,000 in America. In addition, as many as 3000 protesters have been detained and medical professionals have also been arrested for treating wounded protesters, allegedly to prevent them from providing accurate statistics on death tolls and those injured.
Furthermore, human rights groups claim that detainees are “systematically tortured” and UN observers have been barred by Bahraini authorities from investigating the allegations.
Taking that into considering, it’s easy to understand why many were calling for the race to be boycotted as it was last year but for Bernie Ecclestone and his fellow investors there was simply too much money at stake. Formula 1 rules state that any race cancelled two years running must be removed from the calendar and that would cost Mr Ecclestone and his cohorts $200million in funds from the Bahraini ruling family not to mention much more in terms of TV and Sponsorship revenue.
The kingdom’s last race two years ago generated broadcast exposure worth $90.4 million to the brands involved in F1. That’s 16 percent higher than the $78 million each race averaged on the 2010 calendar, according to F1 monitors Formula Money
The race is also incredibly important for the Barhaini Government after the cancellation of the 2011 race cost the nation an estimated $400million worth of tourism losses. Organisers promoted the race with the slogan “UniF1ed One Nation in Celebration” and Najeeb Rajab of the Bahrain Human Rights Centre(BHRC) believes the race was used as a means of repairing the Nation’s shattered reputation as investment has slowed over the past year.
“The race (gave) the impression that everything is back to normal when everything is not back to normal. People are dying on a daily basis.”
Caroline Reid of Formula Money says that Bahrain, like most hosts, have used the sport to market their country to the world and associate it with “glamour, high technology and blue chip companies.”
The Bahraini regime also has intricate links to influential figures in the sport. The Family’s sovereign wealth fund owns a 50% stake in the Mclaren F1 racing team which would explain why drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button refused to be drawn on the subject. On top of that, they also have strong ties to FIA president Jean Todt, who had the authority to cancel the race.
The Bahrain Automobile federation which is headed by Shaikh Abdullah Bin Isa Al Khalifa (brother of the king) backed Jean Todt in his election campaign while the Crown Prince of Bahrain who is the CEO of the Bahrain Circuit owns a stake in a racing team owned by Mr Todt’s son, Nicolas.
With all that in mind and the fact that the 1985 South African GP went ahead despite apartheid still being enforced, it’s perhaps not surprising that the race went ahead.
However what is a little surprising is the way in which F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone marginalised the uprising claiming that it was just a bunch of kids “having a go at the police”.
In reality, it’s a legitimate battle against discrimination between the Shiite Muslim majority and a regime which is accused of encouraging “sectarian discrimination, segregation and apartheid.”
Shiite’s make up around 70% of Bahrain’s population but according to the BHRC fill just 13% of the nation’s senior positions and even fewer key Political and Military posts.
As tension mounted on the eve of the race he went even further telling reporters that “there’s nothing happening” and that “it’s all very quiet and peaceful”.
Meanwhile, Foreign Media Journalists were deported, 50,000 people gathered in the capital city in protest against the race and one man was found dead on a rooftop, allegedly the victim of an assault by Police forces.
“They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent? No one will enjoy F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race.” said Activist Ali Mohammed.
Nonetheless, Bernie Ecclestone has insisted that F1 will return to Bahrain even going as far as to state that the Kingdom can host the annual race “forever”.
For those of us who are fans of this sport and others, this fiasco serves as a timely reminder that beyond the excitement and flag waving – corporate greed ultimately runs the show.