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Bahrain

Update: Joe Saward has published his summary of the weekend, including an account of a meeting with some of his Bahraini readers. It’s a long post, and too good to rip quotes out of, but gives a side of things that just wasn’t shown by the mainstream media. It’s well worth reading it all.

Well, it looks like the Grand Prix will go ahead, despite Ed Millipede joining the chorus calling for it to be cancelled.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think they should be there. I don’t think they should go to China either. Malaysia’s a bit dodgy, too. And I’ve never liked Singapore: they’ve almost as many surveillance cameras as we do.

But seriously, I don’t. The situation there is little better, if at all, than it was last year, when the race was cancelled. Indeed, not long after last year’s non-race, some of the Bahrain International Circuit staff themselves were “arrested”, and, well… who knows? It’s all rather murky.

However, an F1 event lasts three days. It’s already started. The time for cancellation was a fortnight ago (the 2011 race was called off somewhere between one and two weeks before it was due to go ahead, as far as I recall). The logistics of top-level motorsport mean that stuff starts shipping out immediately the flag goes down on the previous race. Indeed, these days, with the abolition of separate test teams, much of the equipment is doubled up, and will ship to “flyaway” (non-European) races two events ahead. Everyone’s there. There are thousands of people at the circuit and around Manama right now for not only F1, but support events: GP2, the Porsche Supercup, etc. The only legitimate reasons for cancelling this weekend would be a genuine threat to safety – that’s usually weather related, but could well include a credible threat of track invasion should one emerge – or to make a political point. And whatever it looks like, the one thing the FIA and Ecclestone’s Formula One Management company have been studiously trying to avoid is appearing to make any political statements.

The trouble is, they backed themselves into a corner. There’s a lot of Bahraini money in motorsport, particularly F1. McLaren is part Bahraini-owned, for example, and there’s sponosorship and equity right down the grid. The BIC is a great facility, very useful for hot weather testing (although there’s precious little of that in F1 nowadays) as well as race events. So there’s tremendous pressure to keep the ruling family sweet, and the only reason they got away with last year’s cancellation was the solemn assurance that they’d be back as soon as things calmed down.

So, what could they do this year? Say, “Nope, still no good?” Well, personally I would have. Sticking to your guns makes less of a statement than changing your mind and appearing to support the government’s rather thin protestations of calm and order. The F1 authorities put themselves in a very tricky situation.

It’s not a decision I – unlike Ed – would like to have made. But it’s been made. Now they’re there, they might as well go through with it.

If you’re interested, Joe Saward is the go-to guy for news. He takes pride in attending every event in person (you’d be amazed how many so-called F1 journalists have no more direct experience of the sport than I do), and has been following the Bahrain fiasco more closely than most since early last year. The latest as I write is that the Force India team, whose staff were caught up in yesterday’s disturbances, didn’t attend the second Free Practice session this afternoon, in order to get its people back to Manama before nightfall. This evening should be the big test of how safe things will be over the course of the weekend, given that the protests all over the middle east always tend to get a boost after Friday prayers.

6 Comments

  1. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    In Singapore anyway I would take the cameras for the economic growth and low crime rates. In the UK we have ever-present snooping, a crashing economy and chaotic social order.

  2. Talwin says:

    Bahrain has been a chum of the west, and Britain in particular, for donkeys’ years; weren’t they one of the very few countries to allow the commercial operation of Concorde?

    And, presumably, there’s a strategic component in keeping a pro-west middle eastern country sweet.

    So I guess there’ll be all sorts of political quid pro quos going on here to keep the race on.

    Miliband’s posturing is easy from opposition. Anyway, does a Marxist wonk like him even know what Formula 1 is?

  3. Mr Ed says:

    F1 seems to operate with subsidies from local, State or national governments keen to have the prestige of spending looted money on people going round in circles. Look how often a fat politician hands out a trophy on the podium. It’s a metaphor for politics s a (w)hole.

    Sunni v Sh’ite is the issue in Bahrein, I think that I prefer the latter, as globally, fewer and less likely to be a hazard to others.

  4. Sam Duncan says:

    You’re right, Mr. Ed, and it’s happened since I started following it in the ’80s. One of the things I liked about it back then was that it was pretty much self-supporting, but that’s all changed. First it was Hungary, which was understandable in a way*, then the French GP was moved to The Middle of Nowhere as part of one of Mitterand’s Grands Projêts, and the dam broke.

    These days, the British GP is the only one that doesn’t get any tax subsidy at all (they did build a few roads around Silverstone, but that was a one-off). That’s something to be proud of, I think.

    Anyway, the point is that this sort of thing didn’t happen until hosting GPs became a governmental pissing contest.

    *It’s amazing to think that the Hungarian GP only took place behind the Iron Curtain four times. It seemed such a big deal at the time. It’s questionable whether it did any good; I think it was Helen Szameuly who said that it was more an indicator of the way things were already going in the country than a catalyst for reform.

  5. john b says:

    The shitstorm over this one is utterly bizarre. From a security and safety point of view, I don’t think holding the race was fair on the teams, as Sam suggests… but from a “supporting vile regimes” point of view, if you’re going to send teams to events in China, you can hardly claim that Bahrain is worse.

  6. Sam Duncan says:

    Indeed, John. And, from what I’ve read (as opposed to seen on the telly) over the last few days, it almost certainly isn’t.

    The recent events in the middle east are far more complicated than they appear on even the “serious” TV news shows. The (Sunni) uprising in Syria is opposed by the (Shia) protesters in Bahrain, for example: they think Assad (who is, I’m sure entirely coincidentally, a Shi-ite) is just dandy. They’ve also changed their focus: while the protests started out calling for reform last year, which attracted support from those in the Sunni minority who aren’t part of the Royal family, more recently they’ve been calling for the overthrow of the government. Much of the violence now (and Joe S. reports that there isn’t half as much of it as the TV newsmen would have you believe) is between them and Sunni counter-protests.

    The impression I come away with is that while it’s good to be sceptical of the Bahraini Government – and it has certainly been heavy-handed – its characterization of the present protesters as “extremists” isn’t too far off the mark. Rather as in Egypt, albeit possibly to a lesser extent, their legitimate grievances have been hijacked by the usual suspects.

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