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Monday, April 9, 2012

On Bahrain: Just don't

Sometime in the next few days, we should hear something about the Bahrain Grand Prix. All signs seem to point to the race going off as scheduled, despite continued instability in the country that led to the cancellation of last year's race.

I think if you polled a majority of people in the world, they would say this is a bad idea, and the F1 media in particular have been voicing concerns about travelling to the country.

Nevertheless, it seems it is the prevailing thought of those who run the sport to go. F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone is on the record saying the race will happen.

"People say to me 'There's not going to be a race.' And I say 'Well how do you know?' And they tell me they saw or read something, but it's all nonsense. These people [the Bahrainis] were brave enough to start an event in that part of the world, and that's it. We'll be there as long as they want us. Whatever is necessary to do will be done, and which is probably not necessary anyway. We've never been concerned about security in the past. I don't understand why people should be concerned now." -- The Guardian

Of course, Bahraini officials want to paint a rosy picture, stressing it is all about sports and not politics.

However, as reports to the contrary come in daily, and strong shows of opposition to the government and the race, such as this hunger strike, come to light, the wisdom of the stance comes more into question.

No less chilling is the statement from The February 14th Youth Coalition that it would not be able to “ensure the safety” of Formula 1 participants.

Reports in The Guardian over the last few days find former F1 champion and current Sky broadcaster Damon Hill calling for a rethink. Joining him on an official front is Labour MP Richard Burden.

And today, an interview published by The Guardian finds an unnamed team boss breaking rank to voice concerns.

"I saw an interview with a human rights activist on BBC World, and he said that there would be demonstrations and that they would be peaceful. But that is the way all demonstrations start off. Other team principals are going through the same worries. I spent all last week making sure the insurances are right so I can reassure the teams. I've sent out an email to our legal department to make sure all our employees are covered for acts of terrorism and civil disorder while travelling to, during and coming back from the Bahrain GP. We have a lot of people. Our first and foremost priority has to be our employees. And their families. That's what concerns us most, even though we've not said anything about it. It seems to me that while there has been some political progress in Bahrain they're not quite ready. The best thing would be for the race to be postponed until later in the year, or even cancelled. But that is a decision that must be made by the FIA, FOM [Formula One Management] and the commercial rights holder. I never anticipated a decision being made until the week before China. I believe Jean Todt is in China, which is interesting."

Honestly? We're debating this? Hunger strikes? Insurance for acts of terrorism? No guarantee of safety?

Granted, the sport's track record is that it seldom seems to be politically aware. It hung on in South Africa long after it wasn't socially acceptable to do so, turned a blind eye to the government in Argentina and China isn't exactly a hotbed of human rights.

Moreover, I understand the argument that Formula 1 can be an ambassador for turning the page in Bahrain, but I don't see a lot of people interested in that right now, save a government trying to sweep things under the carpet. However, daily events seem to prove it won't be over that easily.

Yet F1 seems happy to be a pawn in this game. How many innocent people will be put at risk for what appears to be simple arrogance?

The FIA says it has the matter well in hand.

"We are in daily touch with the highest authorities, the main European embassies and of course the local promoters at BIC (Bahrain International Circuit) as wellas the international promoter."

Let's hope so. Let's hope wiser heads prevail before something really regrettable does happen.

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