Like many people working in F1 I have a rather uneasy feeling about the opening Grand Prix at Bahrain, having witnessed the scenes in Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks and hearing what some are saying about making the race a target for protest.
It’s not the event itself that we need to worry about, as that will be extremely well protected, it’s the comings and goings of the people who work in the sport, which is more tricky to protect. And of course, the drivers. Remember the coverage Jenson Button got when he and his entourage were held up at gun point by an armed gang in Brazil? They got away, but no coverage at all was given to the two groups of mechanics and technicians who were actually robbed by the gang.
Of course it is the easiest thing in the world in a climate like the one we have at the moment, for a dissenting voice to say something about using the global platform of an F1 race to raise awareness of a protest against the government. It doesn’t mean they will follow through and even if they do, it doesn’t mean that it will affect the event. It is such a big thing for the Bahraini government that they will take extensive steps to contain trouble and the circuit is well out of town, in desert land, so is easy to ringfence.
The protests are not against the race, per se, they are against the government in Bahrain and there was a flashpoint in the last few days after police killed a man at the funeral of another who was killed in protests. I’m not an expert on the politics of the gulf region, but there is clearly a domino effect taking place and no-one knows how far it will go. There is no doubt that the region is changing fast. Popular feeling is the driver and the media and internet are the tools being used. TV stations like Al Jazeera give the people the chance to tell their own story and mobile phones and social network sites allow them to mobilise.
One of the things that struck me most forcibly on the day that President Mubarak finally stood down in Egypt was a soundbite interview I heard on Radio Four in the UK where a man said, “We are free, thank you Facebook!”
On another note, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is under intense pressure now that a court date has been set for early April for him to face charges of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute and abuse of power. The prime minister’s behaviour brought the crowds – mostly women – out on the streets in Italy over the weekend to protest.
This seems a world away from F1, but it’s not. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has been an outspoken critic of Berlusconi’s but has also been unwilling to stand against him. If Berlusconi loses office, then Italy will be plunged into a vacuum with a new leader required. The options are pretty tired and boring. If the perfect storm of circumstances occurs, then it is conceivable that Montezemolo would offer to step forward to lead Italy out of the mire. Certainly he has been taking care of the positioning required, establishing his movement “Italia Futura” and making gestures like draping the new Ferrari F1 car in the Italian flag and calling it the F150th Italia – Ferrari being a potent symbol of how great Italy can be on a world stage.
If Montezemolo were to take himself off to do real politics, it would change the dynamic of the ongoing negotiations between the teams and the sport over the next Concorde Agreement. He is a powerful force on the teams’ side. Like the Grand Prix in Bahrain all of this seems trivial in the context of global political events – and it is.
But it’s a big deal for the sport. It’s starting to feel to me like this is the year when F1 and world politics collide.