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Sport and world politics set to collide at start of season?
Sport and world politics set to collide at start of season?
Posted By: James Allen  |  15 Feb 2011   |  3:13 pm GMT  |  104 comments

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.

Bahrain a target? (Darren Heath)

“For sure F1 is not going to be peaceful this time,” said Nabeel Rajab, vice-president of campaign group Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “They’ll be lots of journalists, a lot of people looking and [the government] will react in a stupid manner as they did today and yesterday. And that will be bloody, but will be more publicised.”

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.

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People seem to forget that McLaren are substantially owned by the Bahrain government, so if people really don’t have selective morals then why aren’t they calling for a boycott of McLaren as well as the Bahrain GP, and asking questions of Lewis and Jenson as to why they’re driving for a team that some people say is substantially owned by an ‘oppressive regime’.

Or is that a question too far for the fan boys?



If the Grand Prix in Bahrain is cancelled, what is the likelyhood of another Grand Prix venue being selected to host the event?

There are a few venues waiting in line – could a decision be made in time, to allow other circuits and venues to show their worth?


I don’t think that’s what’s being considered.


What would it take to do the old switcheroo with Abu Dhabi? Logistically speaking, of course…


Does the world of F1 really want to be associated with a regime that publicly kills it’s own people? The Bahrain GP should be cancelled.


I read a very “interesting” article on the NY Times website. It adds an insight by someone who is in the country, and has observed what has been going on.

The last paragraph sums up my thoughts exactly.

There is no way that F1 should race in Bahrain this year. I rarely get embroiled in political discussions on this forum, but reading that article makes my blood boil.


I don’t know, it’s the NY times after all.


Not sure what you mean Jess?

The guy who wrote it hardly lacks credibility does he? Hes a two times pulliter prize winner.


they must be thinking. Do we want to be associated with this regime? The world is changing, and they should act accordingly. I remember when they stopped going to south africa because of the apartheid. And i am sure they are thinking about it.


Just heard that the Bahrain regime have used live ammunition on protesters – the British + US govs should make it clear that this is unacceptable and F1 should seriously consider its presence in the country/region


I won’t be watching the Bahrein GP. The “prince” of Bahrein should get his priorities right. F1 is great, but people come first. I’ll tune in from Malaysia onwards …


Oh, Melbourne that is (and not Malaysia).


It go a lot worse in Bahrain overnight (probably because the chants changed to a request for the King and his family to step down, originally it was just the prime minister) with an attack by the “security forces” on the mostly sleeping crowd camped at the Pearl roundabout. I wont go into the sordid details but its here:

Now I just guess that much of the F1 world (those with a conscience,) will not want to race behind a wall of armed guards, particularly when popular opinion is in support of those being held back. So I would not be at all surprised now if we saw statements starting to come from teams about their reluctance to appear to be supporting the oppressors.

Bernie has to cancel or risk the outrage of the civilised world.

Pity because I cant wait for the first race, but an extra test session could be scheduled instead. (somewhere quieter)


The news this morning on the BBC of deaths of protestors in Pearl Square in Bahrain can only add to the sense, James that ‘world politics and F1 might collide’ before the racing year even starts!


Webmaster, I would like to reply to Robert’s comment on my earlier post but there is no reply box. Can we not reply to a reply?


“Bernie has one motivation MONEY! Any kin of local fan base in not part of the equation. The teams would have to take a stand & in turn receive punitive punishment.”

100% accurate


October 19, 1985 at the Kyalami Circuit in South Africa. The race was marked with some teams boycotting the event due to apartheid — the segregation of blacks and whites — and was the last South African Formula One race until apartheid ended in 1992.

Bernie has one motivation MONEY! Any kin of local fan base in not part of the equation. The teams would have to take a stand & in turn receive punitive punsihment.


“It’s starting to feel to me like this is the year when F1 and world politics collide.”

I think there’s a very good chance of this happening – and I wouldn’t be surprised if rumblngs of conscience- driven dissent didn’t start to show themselves in some interesting places within F1 itself.


My parents live in Bahrain and my brother is currently visiting so I am a little concerned myself at the moment. I am also meant to be going out for the F1. I really hope I am able to. Apparently Friday has been announced as a day of RAGE but I don’t exactly know what this means. They live 10mins away from what’s happening but it seems to have settled just lately. They have restricted the Internet so people cannot get online at the moment either. But that may just apply to some websites eventually.


Hi James,

I think all of my previous comments are not approved. I strongly think there was no offensive statement.

I was merely pointing out the fact that it is irrelevant for you to discuss politics here and I was defending your position so I don’t understand what happened. Please advise.


F1 would never have existed without democratic governments in the founding countries. The rights of people, that democracy brings, should be more important to F1 than any race.


The problem with these news tracks and lack of spectators has more to do with the absense of local drivers on the grid. Once Lewis appeared on the scene, Silverstone was sold out almost immediately. The same with Alonso in Spain – I reckon 90% of spectators in Barcelona and Valencia come just to chant “Aloooonso-Alooonso!” and wave a flag. Schumi-mania in Germany is more or less the same. Once Prost quit, F1 lost ground in France. I think drivers attract more followers than teams in general.

We obviously don’t have any security issues in Europe but F1 is a global sport, they just gotta make sure it’s safe to go to new countries. Hopefully, the sport will grow there and some modifications to the new tracks in order to encourage overtaking would also be welcome.


Great article James.


Who decides whether the tests or the race is postponed – the FIA or Bernie?


We are about to find out!


I guess in this kind of instance, both – the race can’t go ahead if the FIA pull out their staff, and if bernie says it’s not going to happen, the FIA can’t exactly run it without him…


Lets say if it becomes impossible for there to be a race in bahrsin. Would there be only 19 races this year or do the FIA have a track on stand by incase of emergencies such as this. F1 does not need fans at the track (just look at Turkey) or is there to many behind the scenes things to work out to change the venue at short notice.


Seems to me that F1 has to remain independent of politics — but that’s not the same as saying it should ignore politics. It’s important to choose locations for GPs where the arrival of F1 cannot be seen as an endorsement or support for corrupt or undemocratic governments. F1 does not, and should not, operate in a bubble.


Could all be about to get a whole lot worse as well. New investigation launged by CVC and Co into kickback payments intended to devalue shares in F1 when it was sold to CVC.

Makes me wonder if CVC want out and in the process turned up some potentially damaging corruption that needs addressing before they can flog F1, albeit possibly on the back of the those kickbacks taken by their jailed former board member, Gerard Gribywotshisface 😉 Wonder how many characters involved int he runnign of F1 might be implicated?

I love F1 but this could get messy; amazing what happens when people get greedy:


James, as you say, the event will have excellent security.

The real question here is whether F1 should be totally apolitical in its choice of venues.

When F1 visits countries with poor human rights records and cosies up to their leaders, it’s a sign of approval for the regime.


Well, sort of, in the sense that it’s only countries like that who can decide to spend huge sums bigging themselves up in the eyes of the world when we all know it’s all pretty shabby underneath, and there’s been no accountability or democratic input into that spending. Which is what makes the GP an ideal symbol to draw attention to that lack of accountability. As capacity to pay the ridiculous fees is more or less the only criterion of choice for races these days, F1 is bound to get itself into this sort of trouble whenever the winds of change start gusting through those countries.

I thought James trod the line of impartiality pretty well – this is after all a F1 website, not a political one. But there’s going to be some pretty uncomfortable people in the teams in Bahrain if there’s any sign of heavy-handedness from the government there. Everyone knows it’s only sport, after all.


James, Im aware that the first race in Bahrain is within touching distance (to which I am physically vibrating with excitement) but what of the testing session that takes place before that. That is obviously of far less importance, is there any news of this changing at all?


I just recently moved to Italy for work and during my first dinner discussion two weeks ago it was about politics and Berlusconi (surprise, surprise!). So I asked the people at the table about Montezemolo and they were all of the opinion that while he is obviously making big moves to try and become prime minister through much talk and using Ferrari as an advertising platform. There are others with a better chance and stronger popularity here.

This of course is just an opinion from them but may prove an insight into some of the local outlook at the moment. Which means Montezemolo could be pushing F1 causes for the teams a little longer.

More and more with government involvement in getting races organised paid for and now sponsoring. This scenario was always inevitable with Global politics effecting F1.


This post evokes a similar emotion to the earlier post on Williams embracing Chavez’s sponsorship. I think you’re spot on in detecting a sense of ‘people’s uprising’ in the world today. And I think that a lot of it has to do with governments simply failing at their only objective which is to serve their people and putting other interests (themselves included) ahead of that mandate.

Personally – I think sport and politics should not mix. But Bernie has made his bed of encouraging public money to be a back stop for race contracts and therefore means that for that weekend, F1 is a political pawn for that country to promote its [choose as appropriate – regime, tourism, nationalistic propaganda].

Maybe F1 needs to grow a moral spine and not just chase after the bucks – conveniently ignoring where the money comes from.

Perhaps the voices around the world are also saying that politics needs a bit of a shakeup similar to what F1 went through. With the old guard (Ron Dennis, Flavio Briatore, Jean Todt, Max Mosley) out of the way, the new establishment have refreshingly improved the shape of modern F1.

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