• ‘The race could be creating more problems than it is solving’
• Teams and sponsors still have misgivings about Bahrain
The 1996 Formula One world champion Damon Hill has urged the sport to consider “the pain, anger and tension in Bahrain” before deciding to go ahead with the Grand Prix there in just over two weeks.
Hill, who is due to attend the race on 22 April as a member of the Sky Sports commentary team, and who appeared to support the event earlier in the year, has voiced fresh concerns. He said: “What we must put above all else is what will be the penalty in terms of human cost if the race goes ahead.
“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.”
Last summer Hill appeared as the conscience of Formula One when he said the sport should take a moral stand and not reschedule the 2011 race, which had been cancelled in March following the deaths of pro-democracy protesters. “Formula One cannot put its head in the sand concerning the Bahrain Grand Prix, because it is a very volatile situation out there,” he said.
Hill, though, visited the country later in the year and in February, at an event in London to launch Sky’s dedicated F1 channel, he appeared to support the race. “There are sincere efforts to resolve the difficulties,” he said. “There has been a change. Human rights organisations say there is a process in place to help Bahrain recover its reputation.”
But, six weeks later, his attitude has hardened once again. He added on Wednesday: “Things are different now. The protests have not abated and may even have become more determined and calculated. It is a worrying state of affairs.”
And when reminded of his lucrative Sky contract, he said: “Some things are more important than contracts. The view I gave after returning from the visit last year was based on my understanding of several factors; the substantial economic significance of the GP for Bahrain; that the report on the April riots condemned the actions of the police and security forces, and that both sides were to take part in meaningful dialogue to resolve the problems peacefully. Under those conditions one could imagine the GP being a great fillip for a Bahrain on the road to recovery.
“However, with under three weeks to go, conditions do not seem to have improved, judging by the reports in our European newspapers, social media and on Al Jazeera TV. The recent meeting to garner support for the race as a unifying event was troubling insofar as it tried to represent the rioting in Bahrain as the result of bad press reporting and as a ‘youth’ issue.
“Promoting the race as ‘Uniting Bahrain’, whilst a laudable ambition, might be elevating F1 beyond even its own prodigious powers. I’m just saying we have to tread carefully. I hope the FIA are considering the implications of this fully and that events in Bahrain are not seen as they are often sold, as a bunch of yobs throwing Molotov cocktails, because that’s a gross simplification. If they believe that, they ought be more wary. You don’t get 100,000 people risking their lives in protest for nothing.”
Hill is not calling for the race to be called off at this stage. “If we go, we all go,” he said. “But there is obviously still a great deal of pain, anger and tension in Bahrain. It would be better for F1 to make it clear that it properly understands this, and that it wants only the best for all Bahrain, or whatever country it visits. I think F1 is sailing very close to this limit.
“But there is an even more troubling thought, which is this: is F1 playing brinkmanship for purely financial reasons while people are putting their lives in peril to protest against this event?”
Because of the political unrest in the country it is understood that some teams have misgivings about the Bahrain race, as do some sponsors. But they are holding a united line. At the moment, anyway, the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead.
That is certainly the message from Bernie Ecclestone. But in this month’s issue of F1 Racing magazine about 60% of 10,000 international fans polled said it is “not right” for the race to go ahead, with only 24% believing it should take place.