How Did We Get Here?
It all started when Bernie Ecclestone confirmed the news in Shanghai that Formula One will indeed race in Bahrain and that ‘assurances’ have been given the event will go off smoothly and without incident. The news came amidst a firestorm of speculation due to the deafening silence from both the FIA and Ecclestone himself. The FIA issued a formal statement affirming the fact, something that’s not usually done and seen as a gesture to pacify the rampant speculation that was going on at the time.
Now, on the verge of Sunday’s race in a divided nation and with the eyes of the world firmly affixed on the troubled Gulf Kingdom, Formula One risks doing its fans a huge disservice in disgracing the sport, and tarnishing the one thing it values most: Its reputation.
There is an argument that sport should be neutral, unyielding to the politics of the people who partake in it. The argument is a noble one, albeit far too idealistic.
Reality, on the other hand, has a way of failing idealism. As much as the FIA would like to remain hermetically sealed off and maintain its status quo as the bastion of neutrality, there is simply no way for Formula One to divorce itself from the politics of the nation that it is racing in. This is especially the case with Bahrain, where the event itself is devised, financed and endorsed by the Bahraini monarchy.
Formula One isn’t the only event at stake. GP2, F1’s feeder series, is scheduled for another race at Bahrain for next weekend.
To see why the powers that be are hell-bent on making the Bahrain Grand Prix happen, one defaults back to the number one rule of investigation: Follow the money.
Many have said time and again that Formula One is only in Bahrain because of commercial interests, so it’s worth examining just what those interests are. The Bahrain organizers pay Formula One Management (FOM) an annual fee of $40 million for the rights to present the Grand Prix, and the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) and FOM have a contract in place to host the race until 2016. The economic impact, depending on the source, is estimated to be around $300 million to half a billion dollars. The circuit itself, when it was completed in 2004, cost the Bahraini coffers $150 million. When the event was cancelled in 2011, the BIC still paid the $40 million that was required of them. Ecclestone did offer a full reimbursement, but the BIC elected not to take the offer.
Monetary figures aside, there are also contractual issues at play. Formula 1’s sporting regulations state that any two consecutive cancellations of a Grand Prix will result in that event being removed from the F1 calendar. A cancellation to Sunday’s race will jeopardize Bahrain’s standing in the F1 Calendar for 2013 and beyond. With Russia, Argentina and Mexico all vying for a spot on the calendar for a race of their own, it suddenly becomes clear why the organizers want the event to go on as scheduled.
What is most worrisome now is what will happen in the next two days. Both Ecclestone and the Bahrain ruling family seem content being in a state of blissful ignorance, undeterred to the plight that has befallen the people in Bahrain. Meanwhile anti-government and anti-F1 sentiments grow ever more popular and continue to escalate. The audacious move to go ahead with racing has galvanized much protest from the Bahraini people. They accuse the government of parlaying the race as an opportunistic public relations campaign and projecting the appearance of normalcy, when mounting unrest has proved anything but.
Ironic, then, that Formula One, the very thing that the Bahrain government proclaims can unite the people, is causing a deeper divide than ever before.
Which harks back to the original question, how did we get here? What is Formula One doing in a place embroiled in so much turmoil and wanton discord?
In aviation, there is a colloquial term called ‘tombstone mentality’, whereby sweeping reforms to safety are undertaken only after a catastrophic incident has taken place. Formula One in Bahrain is perilously close in actualizing the same dangerous prophecy, the worst of which mustn’t dare contemplating. An uneventful race is of course the most desirable outcome. But the long term damage is already done. The unenviable ramifications of Formula One’s decision to go forth without a moral compass will continue to overshadow the sport long after the chequered flag is waved.