The Bahrain affair was a return to the bad old days of F1 politics

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Bahrain International Circuit, 2004

Bahrain International Circuit, 2004

The FIA’s decision yesterday to strike the Bahrain Grand Prix from the 2011 F1 calendar is welcome – but long overdue.

It came four months too late to spare F1 a messy row which cast the sport in a negative light.

Once the Bahrain government took the decision in February not to hold the season-opening race the following month, it should have served as the cue for the race to be dropped from the calendar entirely.

Instead the F1 calendar was thrown into doubt for months as the Bahrainis were given first one deadline, then another. Eventually the race was reinstated, then finally scrapped for good within the space of two weeks.

The blinkered belief that the race could be be shoe-horned into the end of the calendar, the hasty attempt to displace another event, the deafness to the concerns of the teams or the inconvenience it would cause to race-goers; all this and more demonstrated an eagerness to do business with Bahrain’s rulers which was unseemly given what had taken place in the country.

The likelihood that the government’s decision to end the state of emergency was timed in order to suit the FIA’s timetable for making a decision on reinstating the race is a particularly troubling thought.

The FIA meekly followed Bernie Ecclestone’s attempts to reinstate the race in spite of insurmountable obstacles: he pressed for a one-month extension on the deadline to decide on the race, the FIA supplied it; Ecclestone claimed the teams were happy to race in Bahrain, the FIA believed him and acted accordingly.

A conveniently-glowing first-hand account of the situation in Bahrain was rubber-stamped by the FIA. The flimsy document appears to have been the product of a carefully-choreographed visit. The report was not made public but was leaked online.

The FIA’s Carlos Gracia met with Tariq al-Saffar, who is billed in the report as a “human rights representative” who turned out to be from the Bahrain government’s National Institution for Human Rights whose credentials on promoting human rights are dubious (as first noted by a group of F1 Fanatic readers).

Once reality hit home – a letter from the Formula 1 Teams’ Association to the FIA making their position unequivocally clear – and the impossibility of racing in Bahrain became apparent, the two sides turned on each other.

Ecclestone won the sprint to a microphone, telling the world Bahrain wouldn’t happen after all, leaving Jean Todt and the FIA out on a limb.

Todt hit back by exposing Ecclestone’s inconsistency: One day after saying the race was “not on”, Ecclestone had made fresh attempts to fit Bahrain into the calendar.

Last year brought a welcome break from the toxic politics of recent seasons. The Bahrain affair was an unwelcome return to the bad old days.

Few people in F1 emerge from this mess with any credibility. The exceptions are the teams, whose refusal to accept a late change in the calendar finally halted the efforts to reinstate the race, and the few drivers who spoke out about the situation, chief among which was Mark Webber.

For those in charge there are plenty of lessons to be learned. Particularly as there is every chance F1 will face a repeat of this debate over next year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, which is slated to open the new season on March 11th.

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62 comments on The Bahrain affair was a return to the bad old days of F1 politics

  1. Hairs (@hairs) said on 16th June 2011, 11:41

    The thing about the Bahrain affair is that it’s confusingly stupid.

    F1 is a sport that has an image (supplied by the teams and drivers) of being overwhelmingly, unbelievably attentive to detail, where thousandths of a second are life and death, where something that in the real world is as filthy and messy as a car garage is turned into a futuristic operating theatre environment.

    The administrators of the sport, however, seem determined to bring a sense of bungling, hapless, gurning amateurism to the whole business at every available opportunity. Whether it’s deciding on the sport’s basic rules, or where the races are held, or whether someone’s broken a rule, or what a punishment should be, they can’t come out of it with any indication of competence and consideration.

    The whole Bahrain affair was transparent from start to finish, and yet again FOM and FIA assume that the fans, and the public, are idiots and sheep. We all know that many of the teams are absolutely dependent on Middle Eastern money. We all know that Bernie wants to guarantee his ever increasing race fees, and doesn’t care where it comes from. We all know that Bahrain has done its best to put on a good event every year, and while the country may be in trouble that doesn’t mean that the race organisers are to blame.

    The whole repeated “The sport must not be political” line taken by FOM and FIA, when it was utterly transparent that F1 was being used entirely for political purposes, was ridiculous and sad. Trying to throw the brand new Indian GP under the bus to fit that political agenda was both pointless and rude.

  2. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 16th June 2011, 11:46

    Hear hear. Everything about the re-instatement stunk and the ongoing situation in the country just added insult to injury.

    Thankfully the minutiae of F1 is not followed by the general public; sadly making the wrong decision time and time again did make some of the public aware of it, something F1 cannot afford to keep doing after Spygate, dodgy stewarding decisions, the breakaway and Crashgate (there’s the lying scandal of course, but that damaged Hamilton and McLaren more than the sport).

    Something needs to change. I can’t pretend team ownership of the rights and calendar would leave us with substantial greater morality and standards, but at least on this issue they would have made the right call straight away.

  3. Rob said on 16th June 2011, 11:47

    Good summary of everything that happened – even leaving out the arguments about the morality of racing in Bahrain (muddied by the fact that F1 has no problem with taking government money from China amongst other countries with ‘issues’ over human rights), it shows up how the main motivators for those responsible for running the sport appear to be money along with being seen to be the one who has the power over everything.

    Bernie and Jean have both been shown up as less than open and honest with the teams and the public – although whether anyone really believed they were before this is open to debate.

    I only hope that FOTA have realised they need to come up with a group decision about Bahrain 2012 before too long so they don’t get dragged into another mess next year.

  4. sw6569 (@sw6569) said on 16th June 2011, 11:48

    I think return is the wrong word here. It’s always been like this – except Todt has been keeping quiet. The FiA, and indeed Ecclestone et al, are motivated by one thing: money. Credibility has never been, nor will it ever be, the top of their agenda’s.

    I have no doubt that this was the reason that the race was originally reinstated. We are lucky that the teams refused to race and veto the change.

  5. Red Andy (@red-andy) said on 16th June 2011, 11:52

    There are a number of factors at play in creating the debacle we saw over Bahrain.

    One is the separation of power between FOM, the FIA and the teams. FOM has responsibility for the calendar within the FIA’s rules; the teams essentially have a veto over anything that happens within a given season. This has been exacerbated recently with FOTA effectively functioning as a bloc. With Bahrain what we saw was the various factions talking past one another and seemingly playing to the gallery rather than cooperating with one another. Bernie’s duplicitousness stands out here.

    Another is confusion over what F1 should stand for. Obviously lots of fans wanted F1 to take a stand and cancel the race as a direct response to human rights abuses by the Bahraini government against its people. But when considering whether to reinstate the Bahrain GP, the FIA explicitly ruled out political considerations – in line with its stance as an apolitical organisation – and it’s worth noting that FOTA’s stated objections to staging the race were logistical rather than political or moral. Some (including Keith) have argued effectively that there was no apolitical stance for F1 to take, and it was always a case of deciding between political choices. I don’t necessarily agree with this viewpoint but it is an important one nonetheless.

    These are issues that F1 and the FIA more widely will have to address in the future, to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

    • Rob said on 16th June 2011, 12:04

      Unfortunately there was only one point that I can see where an ‘apolitical’ stance could have been taken: the moment the GP couldn’t go ahead on its original date when the race was cancelled whoever had ultimate responsibility could have said “You have missed your scheduled date, we have too many races in the calendar now to reschedule the race without unreasonable disruption to competitors and spectators, so the race cannot be held this season.”

      • Joey-Poey (@joey-poey) said on 16th June 2011, 14:15

        And really, this is what should have been said from the start. I like the comparison someone made of if a grand prix had been cancelled due to weather, the circus would move on and that’s that.

      • Don Mateo said on 16th June 2011, 14:30

        Of course, just because the reasons given for cancellation were logistical as opposed to political doesn’t mean that people weren’t thinking of the political aspect, but it’s far less controversial to refuse to do something on logistical grounds than political grounds.

  6. BasCB (@bascb) said on 16th June 2011, 11:53

    Sadly it showed how little has changed, save the protagonists being in slightly different places now. Even Max Mosley was brought back in to do his part!

    I fear you are right Keith, last year was an exceptional period of calm without any of this in the background.

    And I fear it will get a lot messier with the ongoing matters for the 2013 rules, possible change of command at FOM being on the cars or not and the concord agreement renewal all clouding the judgement and tactics off those involved even more come end of the year.

    I must say, that I highly rate the way FIA has gone back to an organisation for Motorsport instead of Max’ private team to do things he saw fit under Todt.
    But his far too big reliance on dodgy supporters with no good power base but money shows just why Vatanen would have been better for the organisation.

    • John H said on 16th June 2011, 13:56

      But his far too big reliance on dodgy supporters with no good power base but money shows just why Vatanen would have been better for the organisation.

      100% agree. When its about money though, the masses (as in the F1 fans) can never triumph over the power hungry dictators because if one goes another is always there to take hold of the reigns.

      • hohum said on 16th June 2011, 20:54

        Silvio Berlusconi might be looking for a job soon,he seems to know how to organise an event or two.

  7. wasiF1 (@wasif1) said on 16th June 2011, 12:22

    Good thing it isn’t happening this year but they played too much dram in it.Hope it is back in 2012.

  8. Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 12:36

    A conveniently-glowing first-hand account of the situation in Bahrain was rubber-stamped by the FIA. The flimsy document appears to have been the product of a carefully-choreographed visit

    That reminds me of those notorious government controlled visits to North Korea. At least most people who visit North Korea know they’re being deceived- clearly Carlos Garcia was far more gullible, or stupid

    (Btw you can find online the Vice Guide to North Korea, a documentary on the carefully controlled visits that I just mentioned. It’s fascinating for those of us who are curious about the country)

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 16th June 2011, 12:53

      Yeah, I watched those last year. Really interesting how they think and try to stage everyting.

    • Red Andy (@red-andy) said on 16th June 2011, 12:57

      One of the more bizarre theories about North Korea is that the Pyongyang Metro doesn’t really exist (tourists are only allowed to travel between 2 stops, the theory goes that they are actually the only stations that operate!)

      There’s a fascinating account of a slightly unorthodox trip to NK here: http://vienna-pyongyang.blogspot.com/

      Apologies for off-topic-ery.

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 16th June 2011, 14:02

        You know, I wouldn’t even be suprised by that!

        Nice trip you linked to as well. I could do it starting from Prague!

        • hohum said on 16th June 2011, 20:56

          When do they have their first GP?

          • BasCB (@bascb) said on 17th June 2011, 7:16

            Didn’t you see it then last March? It was broadcasted worldwide on North Korean Network. Imagine the joy of the fans when the Great Leader himself beat Vettels pole time lap in a HRT!

            Amazing race, and the enlightened Son won it, go figure :-D

  9. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 16th June 2011, 12:44

    I’ve always wanted the race to be honest, i’m generally indifferent to most political/humanitarian situations. I rarely find it worthy of my time. Perhaps that sounds a little aloof but why would I care when the country is in turmoil when I don’t really care if everything is a-ok? I would feel very disingenuous.

    Anyways, the point at hand. Regardless of your view point I think we can all agree this has been a mess. There needs to be unity. While I believe it’s good that the teams have their own voice while the FIA and FOM have theirs, it should not escape any of them to speak uniformly.

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 12:54

      Imagine being tortured, executed, murdered by your own government, sentenced to a life in prison… I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think it takes much effort to feel sympathetic for these people

      • Patrickl said on 16th June 2011, 19:28

        So why is it only a problem in Bahrain? Or are you going to huff and puff like a disgusted little girl when there is a race in China, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore or Brazil?

        • hohum said on 16th June 2011, 21:01

          A little harsh Patrick, those countries may not be perfect but they seem to be improving with time and prosperity and remember none of us live in a perfect society, it is less than 40 years since peaceful protesters were shot dead in “the land of the free”.

    • Perhaps that sounds a little aloof but why would I care when the country is in turmoil when I don’t really care if everything is a-ok?

      It may sound a little heartless, but this is my stance too. If ytou worried about every ill in the world, you’d be an eternally-depressed wreck. Focus on what counts and what affects you directly (or more directly than other things).

      • AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 16th June 2011, 13:18

        Exactly my point. I used to follow the news a lot, particularly around the Zimbabwean political struggle a couple of years ago so I don’t consider myself ignorant. However, I do question if I ought to really care? Truth be told, no. I don’t hold the human race in any sort of high esteem and never have.

    • xtophe (@xtophe) said on 16th June 2011, 14:04

      I see where you’re coming from. There’s a lot of misery (nearby and far away) and I suppose it’s a reflex of selfpreservation to have some form of compassion fatigue settle in.

      I feel compassion and I even find most of these problems intriguing to a certain point, but what can we do about it? That’s the bigger issue at hand. Disingenous is probably the correct word to describe similar feelings, although for now, I guess I’m still some sort of an idealist.

    • Joey-Poey (@joey-poey) said on 16th June 2011, 14:20

      Yet you manage to care about the drivers and their welfare, correct? Is it safe to assume you would feel something if one of them was hurt in a racing incident? How would you feel if one of them were hurt due to actions of protestors or police within the country?

      I can understand removing yourself from the situation because it’s difficult to worry over every single human being in the world. But in this case, if you are invested in the drivers and other people within F1, then it’s reason to be concerned over the situation.

      • AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 16th June 2011, 20:16

        Of course, they are people I ‘know’ and are aware of. I’m not going to pretend I care particularly for Joe Bloggs when he has no direct influence over my life. I think most of us have thoughts like that than we care to admit.

  10. W-K said on 16th June 2011, 12:44

    On Adam Cooper’s F1 Blog (http://adamcooperf1.com/) he comments, regarding the now non change of dates for the Indian race;

    The FIA will thus now host its annual shindig in Delhi in December – for which 800 hotel rooms are booked – without an F1 race as a supporting act…

  11. beneboy (@beneboy) said on 16th June 2011, 12:48

    Excellent article Keith, it’s just a shame that those running F1 don’t have the ability to see things this clearly !

  12. Dan_the_McLaren_fan (@dan_the_mclaren_fan) said on 16th June 2011, 13:11

    Looks like we are about to see an open war in the very near future. The belligerants : Bernie, Todt and the FIA, and the F1 teams. What will be the fighting about? Power and money of course! The goal : who will get the most of them by the end of 2012.

    So we have prepare ourselves for several months of politics poisonning our favourite sport! Yummy! :-)

  13. Fixy (@fixy) said on 16th June 2011, 13:57

    What’s more worrying is that the government had to drop their bids to host the race as the dispute between the FIA and the teams continued. After that, Ecclestone and Todt, who both wanted the race but were seemingly not keen on showing that to the public, started a battle of which of them had continued trying to keep the race, with Ecclestone saying he hadn’t and Todt answering back he had, like little children.

  14. John H said on 16th June 2011, 14:17

    Think back to the ill-prepared Commonwealth Games.

    I think there are things that we’re not being told here – perhaps that the Indian GP organisers need more time and the Bahrain fiasco offered an opportunity for this. I have no evidence for this of course and I could be way off the mark, but it just doesn’t feel that everything we have been told publicly stacks up.

  15. Joey-Poey (@joey-poey) said on 16th June 2011, 14:26

    I find it sad that race fans can invest themselves into caring SO much about a small group of people they’ve never met or spoken to, yet proclaim “why should I care about the people of Bahrain? What does it matter to me?” I have to imagine that if the race went ahead and one of the drivers were hurt by protestors or police, they’d sing a different tune about the situation…

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 16:57

      a small group of people they’ve never met

      Who’s this, Ice T?!

      But, yes, I know what you mean, we’re all humans, we all have equal worth. I don’t like how the safety of marshals and spectators is often disregarded in F1 safety debates, as though they are somehow less important than the drivers.

      Consider the deaths of the two marshals in 2000 and 2001, Paulo Ghislimberti and Graham Beveridge. The fact that I had to look up their names is telling- they have been largely forgotten. There was no great outpouring of grief from F1 fans, as there had been when Senna died, for example.

      Obviously, that’s inevitable to an extent, but when you strip away everything else, Senna, Ghislimberti and Beveridge were all just middle aged men who died doing something they loved

      • Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 16th June 2011, 21:46

        I think the difference is that a lot of people had an emotional investment in Senna. Few had heard of the marshals until their untimely end.

        Of course in retrospect people still care more about Senna, even if they never knew him as a contemporary. That’s just inevitable. But I would say there’s a great difference between caring more about Senna than caring less about Ghislimberti and Beveridge, even though it seems like the same thing. And of course, many many have never even heard of them.

        • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 23:21

          I know it’s inevitable. But still, the extent to which drivers’ lives are seen as more important than anyone elses in F1 is a bit disturbing to me

          there’s a great difference between caring more about Senna than caring less about Ghislimberti and Beveridge

          Perhaps. I suppose that’s impossible to know for sure though

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