Formula One has placed its hands over its ears by deciding to reinstate the Bahrain Grand Prix
Formula One, more than most sports, always had the capacity to make a fool of itself. In this noisy and neurotic world, fuelled by money and madness, rumour and counter-rumour, there is never much space for a hinterland.
A high pitch of competitiveness breeds a certain insecurity in the paddock and there is a level of self?importance that can stray beyond the borders of solipsism.
In this arms race, this carbon fibre world of telemetry and downforce and double diffusers, where even the subject of tyres has its own esoteric lexicon, the imperative is always to move forward and to thrust one’s head into a clamorous engine. The ability to take a step back, to take in a wider view, to contextualise, to glimpse at world affairs even when those involved do manage to get home in time for Newsnight, is looked upon as a distinct disadvantage when it’s helter versus skelter for pole position on Saturday afternoon.
The sport is peopled by very eager, earnest, utterly charming and implausibly bright young men whose boffinish abilities can sometimes leave – along with the oil – a stain of obsessive-compulsive disorder on the overalls. Cleanliness is observed quite manically, not only in the garages but in the strangely egocentric motorhomes that are erected and then dismantled with startling speed. But, it seems, there is always room for a little moral ambiguity to go unswept.
For this is the sport which has just placed its hands over its ears (though deafness abounds already in this raucous environment) and decided to reinstate the Bahrain Grand Prix which, in a moment of sanity conspicuous for its rarity, it had postponed at the start of the season. The circus will now return in October to a country where, according to Amnesty International, hundreds of anti-government protestors remain in custody to be tried before military courts and allegations of torture abound. Where even on Friday, as the FIA deliberated its decision, police were discharging tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters.
The hoary old notion that sport and politics should exist independently, a laughing stock of an argument as long ago as 1936 in Berlin, has been allowed to resurface, although the gnomic Bernie Ecclestone, a short man who casts a long shadow, has ridiculed his own thesis by suggesting the race may bring the people of Bahrain together. It is Ecclestone’s peculiar genius to be able to sell Formula One to far-flung governments whose vanity either makes them blind to the fact that they don’t need them, or convinces them the successful staging of a car race projects their image in a more benign light.
So white elephants – and Bahrain is one of them – are built way out of town at great expense and few people bother to go along to the big top on Sunday afternoon. The crowds are low in Bahrain, Korea, Malaysia, China and Turkey, while traditional centres, such as France, Portugal and South Africa, are now off the schedule.
Europe, until recently, was the centre for the sport. But Ecclestone’s drive to broaden the schedule has meant he has had to do business with some very unsavoury governments. Ecclestone was good for the sport in the 80s and through the 90s but he is now a man in danger of being cut adrift, distracted, perhaps, by bribery allegations in Germany as much as takeover talks.
This is the man who said that at least Hitler got things done and, more recently, that there was too much education in the world, though presumably he excluded himself from that remark. He is 80 now, still revelling in the role of the autocrat and dragging a sometimes unwilling sport behind him. Indeed the teams themselves are far from happy with this outcome.
The rescheduled Bahrain Grand Prix still may not happen. Insurance will be an issue, and might have to be underwritten by the Bahrainis themselves. The sponsors may argue damage to their brands. And if Pirelli, the tyre suppliers, balk, the whole show would be off.
Formula One is the sport whose history comes wrapped in wreaths. This week Senna had its cinema release, the film a moving tribute to the last man killed on the Formula One track. But the sport – if it is a sport at all and not just an inflated commercial platform – should be capable of recognising those who have died for a better cause, for the sake of human rights and greater freedoms; and that they have been dying in Bahrain since February.