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GP Week : Issue 150
The Formula One circus leaves town, the camera crews pack up, the reporters return home and attention shifts to the next race, or the next international conflict. Most commentators – professionals and amateurs – did so from 3,000 miles away. Of those of us sports reporters on the ground, several were asked to take on the role of war reporters. And I believe they did an admirable job. They went in search of trouble, and they found it. There’s a very good case for saying we shouldn’t have gone to Bahrain: That it aided an outdated regime along with their cruel security forces; That race goers and F1 personnel could be harmed; That money and politics were coming before humanity. The coverage in the build up to the race highlighted Bahrain’s problems – something the opposition movement welcomed. We can be thankful that the worst fears were not realized. The race went without a hitch. There were reports of violence away from the track, but it didn’t spill over. F1 was not targeted. One man was killed last week, which is absolutely gut-wrenching, but F1 cannot be held responsible for this civil war. By refusing to cancel the race, FOM, the FIA and the Bahraini government played a huge gamble and while no one came out of it well in PR terms, they have at least come out of it. They didn’t collide with the iceberg that overshadowed the whole event. Had the race been cancelled, not only would it have been a victory for the extremists (a political repercussion in itself), it would have set a precedent the sport would quickly regret. Suddenly, several venues either on the calendar or under consideration would be deemed ineligible, either due to political instability, their human rights record, or crime. Force India were rattled when some of their boys witnessed a ruckus on the way back to their hotel. But most of us have witnessed scarier attacks in Brazil and we keep going back. Martin Brundle told Sky he’d “never seen Bahrain looking better” , which sounds flippant given the pictures of rioting and reports of deaths we’ve received, but in context he’s right. Most of us saw nothing to report. Aside from a few Armoured Personnel Carriers discretely parked away from the highways, it looked like any other race. I genuinely never felt unsafe. How representative it is, I don’t know, but all the Bahraini waiters, taxi drivers and petrol pump attendants I spoke to said they were excited about the race. They couldn’t have been more charming hosts. You can argue whether it was worth all the bother in coming here. Mr E has come across like a Bond baddie, his moral compass broken, his judgment clouded by dollar signs, lacking any sympathy for his fellow man; Mr Todt, an outdated establishment bureaucrat afraid to say anything or make a decision that might upset his power-base. Ultimately, Formula One’s primary motive was money. FOM earned £15 million (US$24m) to stage the race, and the teams £10 million (US$16m) between them for turning up – excluding TV revenue and sponsorships, which will multiply these figures several times over. Jean Todt received political support from Bahrain during his election, and his son Nicolas’ ART racing team is part-owned by Bahrain’s Crown Prince, who is also chairman of the F1 circuit. FOTA boss Martin Whitmarsh’s McLaren team is 40 percent owned by the Bahraini royals. With money and powerful friends like that, it’s easy to turn a blind eye. Formula One and the FIA were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, because holding the race and canceling the race both came with political fall-out. Unsurprisingly, they went for the option which came with the greater benefits, even if it came with the greater risk. These guys are all steely poker players. It’s what they live for. It’s not the first time we’ve seen money and power come before safety, democracy, or at the expense of reputations. It happens often enough in western politics, and we’ve seen it more times in world sport than I can remember. I’m afraid we just have to accept it. Foreign politicians like Labour leader Ed Miliband chimed in at the last minute – too late – just to score cheap political points. Just so they could say “I told you so” if the ‘Shiite’ hit the fan. Fortunately it didn’t. The headlines were unpalatable, the accusations stung, but F1 has never had the cleanest laundry. Will it learn lessons from Bahrain? Probably not. Digging its heels in was characteristic. It stood its ground and it weathered the storm. Due to the furore, the highest F1 TV ratings ever were expected in Bahrain. Some may be turned off the sport because of its actions this weekend. But, having tuned into such a pure display of wheel-to-wheel jousting, I hope the wider public can appreciate why many of us remain committed to it. BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE OPINION ADAM HAY-NICHOLS F1 Editor OPINION 18 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: