There is a Grand Prix this weekend in China, but it’s the one the following Sunday in Bahrain which is dominating the headlines and looks set to dominate the agenda in Shanghai this weekend as well.
One of the leading opponents of the Bahraini ruling regime yesterday predicted “violence” on the streets of the country if the Formula 1 Grand Prix goes ahead next week.
Speaking in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, in which I also took part, Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said, “I’m afraid that it will turn to violence.. You see growing anger against the F1 here, it’s become a symbol of the ruling regime here in Bahrain.
“Some people say ‘Let’s separate politics and sport’, yes you can do that in the UK but not in a repressive regime where everything is in the hands of the rulers.”
You can hear all of the eight minute discussion on the Bahrain GP, starting at 14 mins in, here BBC Radio 4 PM programme
This threat is precisely what the teams are afraid of. In the last 24 hours one unnamed team principal told the Guardian that most of the teams want the race cancelled, or at least postponed, as they are profoundly uncomfortable about going there.
Damon Hill broke the ice last week on this subject when he said, “It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race. That is not what this sport should be about. Looking at it today you’d have to say that [the race] could be creating more problems than it’s solving.”
And now the unnamed team boss has said, “I feel very uncomfortable about going to Bahrain.
“If I’m brutally frank, the only way they can pull this race off without incident is to have a complete military lockdown there. And I think that would be unacceptable, both for F1 and for Bahrain. But I don’t see any other way they can do it.
“We’re all hoping the FIA calls it off. From a purely legal point of view, in terms of insurance and government advice, we are clear to go. But what we find worrying is that there are issues happening every day.”
According to Gazzetta dello Sport today 10 of the 12 team principals are in favour of the race being called off. One team sent its team manager over there to recce the situation last week and he reported back to other teams that things don’t look particularly unusual, but the situation is evolving quite quickly and what is clear is that there will be intense meetings between Bernie Ecclestone (who will be attending his first race of the season), FIA president Jean Todt and the teams during the Chinese Grand Prix weekend.
Ecclestone has always maintained that the protests are small in scale and that there is nothing for the teams or other F1 personnel to worry about. In the first sign that he’s softening his position on this matter, Ecclestone has told the Times today, ‘If the teams don’t want to go, then we cannot make them.”
The teams have hitherto said that they are leaving it to the FIA to make the decision on this matter as it is their role to ensure the safety of the event and its participants. But the Guardian article is a sign that some teams are now trying to force the issue. The Bahrainis have quite a bit of influence within the FIA, including a seat on the World Council. They also have a major share holding in McLaren, which makes team principal Martin Whitmarsh’s position awkward, in light of his role as FOTA president, which requires him to reflect the views of the seven teams still involved in that organisation.
I think the point is that F1 teams are keen to race in Bahrain, but only when the country has stabilised again after the 2011 uprisings and when the teams can be sure that their personnel are not at risk and the race will be played out against a backdrop of calm.
Although the authorities in Bahrain want to use F1 as a symbol that the country is well advanced down that path, the continuing protests and threats indicate that it’s not as far down that road as it might have hoped to be.