Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One have negotiated the speed bump of Bahrain but, although the drivers and teams buried their heads in the sand, the issues remain far from black and white
The chequered flag fluttered, the engines fell silent, the trophies were awarded and the Formula One circus emitted a sigh of relief before packing up and moving out, consigning the events of Bahrain to the past and looking forward to starting the European season at the Circuit de Catalunya in three weeks’ time. There will be no improvised roadblocks made of burning tyres in Barcelona, no demonstrators holding up photographs of the victims of alleged torture, no embarrassing questions about the right of grand prix racing to go about its business in an atmosphere of political conflict. Make no mistake: to Formula One the unpleasantness in Bahrain represents nothing more than an isolated speed bump.
Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt, at whom most of the criticism was directed, know that none of it will stick – at least not where it counts. Most of those who formed an unfavourable impression of the sport last week, or had an existing dislike reinforced, were not members of its natural constituency in the first place. As for the TV audience, since this is Sky’s first season in F1, it is not possible to make a meaningful comparison of the satellite broadcaster’s viewing figures, although experience suggests that the extra publicity and the possibility of disruption may even have persuaded more people to tune in to the live broadcast. Which the sponsors would not mind a bit.
Those willing to defend Bahrain’s right to hold a grand prix made some fair points. Among us commentators, for instance, how many really know what sort of political agenda was driving last week’s protesters? Would we happily support the cause of Al Wefaq, the leading opposition party, which took 64% of the popular vote at the last election and holds 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house, the Council of Representatives? Representing the Shia majority, Al Wafeq has campaigned against the activities of the Supreme Council for Women, which was set up by the government after women had been granted the vote and the right to stand for election in 2002. When none was elected, thanks to the influence of the Islamist parties, six women were appointed to the 40 strong Shura Council, the upper house, whose members are nominated by Bahrain’s king.
So that’s a bit of moral confusion for you, right there. Here’s another: why shouldn’t Formula One go to Bahrain (or China or Turkey) when, whatever their human rights record, the British government and many others are happy for their citizens to do business there? And don’t Ecclestone and Todt have an obligation to honour their contracts?
Here’s an answer. As the members of the Formula One circus prepared to shake the dust of the desert from their feet on Sunday night, they were confronted by a banner across the track, bearing a message from the organisers: “UniF1ed – We Did It!” Now there could be no misunderstanding about the use to which Bahrain’s rulers were putting their grand prix, for which they pay Ecclestone m a year.
The “UniF1ed” slogan had been much in evidence before the race, in clear breach of Formula One’s own covenants, which bar it from political involvement of any kind. Here was the government of Bahrain exploiting an opportunity to claim success for its efforts to address the grievances of those whose demonstrations caused the 2011 race to be cancelled. Clear grounds, you might think, for Ecclestone or Todt to cancel again this year.
Last week Amnesty International issued a report headed “Flawed Reforms: Bahrain fails to achieve justice for protesters”, contradicting the government’s claims and giving details of continuing violations of human rights. It would be nice to think that one or two of the drivers bothered to read it. But here is another dismaying feature of modern Formula One: a couple of dozen (mostly) intelligent young men can be cowed into silence by commercial imperatives. No one expects them to jump on the barricades but a simple expression of concern or some sign of an interest in the outside world would be welcome.
When Sebastian Vettel, the current world champion, attempted on Thursday to comment on the issues of personal safety affecting F1 personnel in Bahrain, the way his words were reported made him seem grossly insensitive. Here, in full, is what he said: “I think generally being in the paddock surely there is no problem. Being outside of the paddock, maybe there is a risk, but there’s a risk everywhere we go. If you imagine when we go to Brazil, it’s not the place we want to be, as well, depending on the area you are [in]. It’s not a big problem and I’m happy once we start testing tomorrow then we worry about the stuff that really matters – tyre temperatures, cars …”
Vettel has a healthy sense of humour and while uttering those last few words he gave a little smile. But they were reprinted in isolation, without the suggestion that he was gently satirising the absurdity of Formula One’s self-absorption. Perhaps this time next year he and his fellow drivers will not find themselves in a position where their silence can be broken only by an embarrassed attempt at a joke. But don’t bet on it. For Bernie Ecclestone it will always be worth slowing momentarily for a speed bump if there’s a m cheque on the other side.