F1’s Bahrain Grand Prix brinkmanship is all about money

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Start, Bahrain Grand Prix, 2010We’re ten day away from the start of practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

But has much changed for the better in the ten months since the FIA belatedly dropped its efforts to shoehorn the race into the back-end of last year’s calendar?

Following the government’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in February of last year, over 2,000 Bahrainis have been imprisoned, more than 1,800 of which are alleged to have been tortured, and 62 have died.

This, it must be remembered, has taken place in a comparatively small nation of some 1.2 million inhabitants, less than half of which are Bahraini citizens (the rest are expatriates).

The government commissioned an inquiry chaired by UN war crimes expert Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni. His damning 500-page assessment (PDF link) detailed the use of “unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage” by the security forces.

Bassiouni found a pattern of “torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse [...] which in some cases was aimed at extracting confessions and statements by duress, while in other cases was intended for the purpose of retribution and punishment”.

While the Bahrain government has been quick to play up the scale of the investigation, critics say it has been slow to implement the report’s recommendations. Chief among which is Bassiouni himself, who said in January: “I think the public is going to come out in the end and say ‘You’re holding all of these investigations behind closed doors – this is a whitewash’.

“And I think that would be perfectly justified”.

While the government drags its feet protests have continued, albeit on a smaller scale which, given the numbers imprisoned and the heightened police presence, is hardly surprising.

Last month the European Parliament condemned the Bahrain government’s “ongoing” human rights violations including “the excessive use of tear gas, repression, acts of torture, unlawful detention and prosecution of peaceful protesters”.

“We’re all hoping the FIA calls it off”

The Bahraini government is telling anyone who will listen that the pro-democracy protesters are merely criminal rioters, possibly operating in league with factions in Iran – a dubious claim but one which resonates with some.

The FIA appears only too eager to believe everything it is told by the Bahrain government. This is hardly a surprise – last year they produced a flimsy document supporting a race in Bahrain just one week before the race organisers cancelled the Grand Prix.

Despite eventually scrubbing the 2011 F1 race from the calendar the FIA restored the event this year. On top of that it handed Bahrain a round of the World Endurance Championship, a pair of GP2 meetings (including the only non-F1-supporting round) and the final leg of the CIK-FIA U18 Karting World Championship.

F1 team principals have previously insisted they were satisfied to follow the FIA’s lead on Bahrain, despite the governing body having demonstrated a palpable lack of judgement on the matter last year.

Only yesterday did the teams begin to reveal their unease with the situation. One team principal told The Guardian: “We’re all hoping the FIA calls it off.

“From a purely legal point of view, in terms of insurance and government advice, we are clear to go. But what we find worrying is that there are issues happening every day.”

Hunger strike

The European Parliament has also called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all peaceful demonstrators, political activists, human rights defenders, doctors and paramedics, bloggers and journalists” including Bahrain Centre for Human Rights president Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Al-Khawaja, who the European Parliament says is being held “for exercising… rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly or complying with their professional obligations”, has been on hunger strike for the last two months.

There are fears for his life – and concerns for what might follow if he were to die in the hands of his captors. Just a few hours ago news broke of a bomb injuring seven policeman in Manama.

Against all common sense, F1 is about to jump into this powder keg. And it is doing so for exactly the same reason it kept returning to South Africa in the seventies and eighties, long after other sports had turned their backs on the apartheid regime.

The value of the Bahrain Grand Prix

The reason, of course, is money.

Bahrain is one of the most valuable races to F1, both in terms of how much they pay to hold the race and the degree of exposure sponsors get from the race.

In turn, it is extremely valuable to the Bahrain economy, which has taken a battering in the last 12 months. On top of that is the race’s inestimable value to the Bahraini royal family of presenting the impression that life has returned to normal.

This explains why F1 is playing its dangerous game of brinkmanship. Last year the race remained on the calendar until the Bahrain race organisers themselves called it off. This allowed Formula One Group to keep the ?é?ú25m ($40m) paid by the Bahrainis for the race even though it wasn’t held.

A decision not to go through with next Sunday’s race may not be taken until the teams are preparing to leave Shanghai this weekend.

And even then, we can’t rule out the possibility of a repeat of last year’s shambles where the race was repeatedly postponed and moved into different slots.

Recall that at one point last year the FIA was giving serious consideration to moving the inaugural Indian Grand Prix to make way for a rescheduled Bahrain race, and you can appreciate just how keen all involved are to keep cashing those cheques.

Bahrain documentary

Al Jazeera’s “People and power: Bahrain” covers developments in the 12 months since last year’s demonstrations, and is well worth watching:

For more on developments in Bahrain in the last 24 hours, see today’s round-up.

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107 comments on F1’s Bahrain Grand Prix brinkmanship is all about money

  1. DCG-1994 said on 10th April 2012, 14:06

    I for one hope the race does go ahead. Who knows, the race could begin to restore the country’s economy and it might unite the country. It could do more good than bad if the race was held. However there is of course the possibility of protests if the race does go ahead. I feel the race should go ahead but with tighter security in order to keep the teams safe.

    I for one would love to see a race purely because I love the sport. I’m not interested in the politics, I want to see some close racing. Would be great to see Schumacher win in Bahrain. XD

    • me262 said on 11th April 2012, 13:54

      and why would you be interested in politics right? as long as you get to watch the race from your comfy couch, who cares whats going on in…im sorry whats the place called again? yeah Barhain or wherever it is…get rid of all the trouble makers, lockĂ©m up and lock and load…and Hamilton leads into the first corner..cheers!

  2. Mallesh Magdum (@malleshmagdum) said on 10th April 2012, 16:28

    Even if we get to race in Bahrain the only entertaining event in the race would be streakers running across the track during the race :) Hope it happens if the race is given the go ahead

  3. rdpunk (@) said on 10th April 2012, 17:59

    Just when I thought that Bernie couldn’t be such an utter tool who is unconnected to the world outside his back pocket he goes and say’s this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/motorsport/formulaone/9195762/Bernie-Ecclestone-Bahrain-GP-security-not-a-worry-for-F1-teams.html

    Stupid, shocking and I am utterly disgusted that not only Bernie but the teams are okay with this! So what if people are dieing, as long as we can make money then that’s alright. It is vile and I would of thought that someone within F1 would have the common scence and a simple knowledge of world politics to know that when innocent people are dieing at the hands of heavily armed military men all in the name on freedom and democracy. All I am saying is that F1 isn’t doing anyone any favours by staging a race in a country that is at war with themselves!

  4. Force Maikel (@force-maikel) said on 10th April 2012, 19:32

    I am only going to say this one time. The Bahrain Grand Prix can’t be held because it is unethical and it simply wouldn’t be the right thing to do. I feel as if last year didn’t teach anyone anything. As a motorsport fan do I want to see a race in Bahrain? Yes I do because I love all the GP’s and even the ugly ones. As a human do I want to see an race in Bahrain? NO! I don’t. The facts are out on the table. The civil rights of the Bahraini people are clearly being violated and allowing a GP to continue in such a country is a crime on itself.

    Bernie E. doesn’t care if the gp goes on because his chek has been cashed in. I can’t wait until this money-hound leaves F1 for good! If he wants to kiss some sheiks ass for money be my guest.

  5. Venkman said on 10th April 2012, 21:22

    Bernie should be shot, the guy is evil. Hope I’m not ridiculed like Jeremy Clarkson, and I won’t apologize, because this time I’m serious!

    Just read here that Bernie wants to deal with the teams separately if they don’t race because they would be breaching the contract.

    Just to round this off.. please take a look at this graffiti in a village close to Manama in Bahrain.

  6. The Limit said on 10th April 2012, 21:30

    If you dig deep enough every nation on earth has skeletons in the closset. Most nations, including Great Britain, have at some stage past and present persecuted people in the name of religion or a multitude of reasons. The main point of concern about Bahrain though is more imminent, and that is the safety of those going to this year’s grands prix! The politics surrounding Bahrain are complicated enough without adding this to the mix, and in my opinion, Ecclestone and the FIA are sticking their necks out! If people are killed at this grands prix, it could effectively destroy F1 as a sport.
    I know that sounds cold, but that is the reality. Why put people in harms way and risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg? No amount of money is worth more than human life, but obviously Bernie Ecclestone only cares about his life and not that of others.

    • Have you heard about slavery, the opium wars, the california gold rush etc. Why not ask all the oil companies to pull out of the middle east as they provide the money to support these rulers. If you were about to visit the holocaust museum and a cherokee, cheyenne, apache or other native american asked you to turn around and leave would you. Morality has strange bedfellows. What is a prostitute?

  7. rsp123 (@rsp123) said on 10th April 2012, 21:49

    Very nice piece Keith. Best article on Bahrain and F1 I’ve come across.

    • Palle (@palle) said on 11th April 2012, 23:21

      Agreed. I think Keith should also ban the race, by not reporting from it, if it is held, and to cancel the F1 fanatic prediction competition for this race – i.e. ignore any predictions and the results of this race.
      The graffiti link from Venkman made yet another impression on me, but is it actually made in Bahrain?

  8. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 10th April 2012, 22:56

    Cancel it, simple as.

    I’m not going to get into any heated debates about this situation. If I want to do that there are plenty of avenues available to me where I personally feel it would be more appropriate for me to comment.

    I’m a cynical person by nature so you won’t catch me taking what the media says for granted. They have papers to sell too, remember.

  9. foleyger (@foleyger) said on 10th April 2012, 23:07

    Can someone please help me with this – The FIA run the championship but Bernie gets to pick the circuits and do the contracts and he pockets the money? Is this correct?

    • AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 11th April 2012, 13:38

      @foleyger The FIA run the sporting side of the championship whereas FOM (Formula One Management) run the commercial side, this is where Bernie Ecclestone comes in. He acts as a negotiator for FOM and to some extent the teams who all sign up to the Concorde Agreement. Bernie takes a fee for his work but by no means keeps all the money. The money is fed back into the sport and on to the teams at the end of the championship.

  10. Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 11th April 2012, 16:41

    Wasn’t aware that a race was kicked off the calendar if it’s cancelled two years running:
    BBC F1 (see the “Analysis” panel on the left)
    So it looks like any future Bahrain races are at stake here, although I don’t doubt Bernie would try to make an exception to the rule.

    What about the stand-alone GP2 race, the weekend after (I believe)? Is that off if the Grand Prix’s cancelled – or will the FIA assume nobody’s watching it (probably not far off the truth) so the event’s less of a target.

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