Bahrain Grand Prix 2012: city burns but Bernie Ecclestone insists the show must go on
Formula One has always been about gambling; with drivers’ lives, with money, with other people’s money. Its unique mix of business, politics, engineering and breathtaking skill and bravery behind the wheel mean the stakes are always high.
Rarely, though, can it have found itself on the horns of a dilemma such as it encounters now, at the centre of a complex row over human rights, money, politics, even international diplomacy.
The decision to push ahead with Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix in spite of ongoing civil unrest was always a big gamble. Now it has turned into a potentially ruinous one.
With Force India skipping second practice on Friday — they were worried about returning to their hotel in the dark — after a firebomb incident on Wednesday night, and Sauber admitting that a bus-load of their mechanics were approached by masked men brandishing Molotov cocktails the following night, everyone out here is jittery.
An estimated 10,000 people swarmed the highway north of the circuit on Friday to protest against the ruling Sunni regime, with rioting expected to break out across the city as it has most nights this week.
Every day the protesters become more encouraged by the international attention they are garnering, with news reporters being denied visas as they scrabble to get in on the action.
Web hackers Anonymous on Friday night took over Formula One’s official website to “fight for freedom and justice in Bahrain”.
The situation has become so febrile that belatedly, some might say opportunistically, Ed Miliband, the leader of the Opposition, called on Friday on the Government to put pressure on Formula One to cancel the race at the 11th hour.
David Cameron responded by saying that it was a decision for the sport. “Bahrain is not Syria,” the Prime Minister noted. “There is a process of reform on its way and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform.”
It was another example of how this race has become hopelessly politicised. There is a feeling in Bahrain that Formula One has become a tool of government – both ours and theirs – to help a key ally in a volatile region on the path to reform.
It may be a noble cause but not what many of the sport’s travelling army, the engineers, the media, the catering staff, signed up for. Or their families. The wife of one of those engineers was practically in tears on a Radio 2 discussion on Friday.
But the sport presses on. It has to. To cancel now, as Bahrain’s Crown Prince said on Friday, “would simply empower extremists”. What kind of message would that be four months before London hosts the biggest sporting show on Earth?
The fact is the sport should not have come here in the first place.
That much is clear now. We received mixed messages beforehand, the authorities claiming that such rioting as there was confined to outlying villages and districts, with Manama a haven of calm. And for the most part it is. But successive nights have seen teams caught in the crossfire and the situation is escalating. Formula One is helping it to escalate.
Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s chief executive, and Jean Todt, the president of the governing body, have a lot on the line. Ecclestone, in particular, after 81 years of scrapping his way to a fortune, is used to tough questions but should things go wrong very tough questions will be asked. To what extent did commercial and political interests cloud their judgment?
It is why everyone tried so hard to pass the buck last week, with Ecclestone saying it was up to the teams, the teams saying it was up to the FIA and the FIA saying nothing at all.
Ultimately, however, those two carry the responsibility for Formula One being here. Sure, the teams and drivers and sponsors could have boycotted the race but they, too, rely to a certain extent on the information they receive from above.
Ecclestone was his usual flippant self when asked for his thoughts on events this week. “It’s a lot of nonsense,” he said. “I think you guys want a story, and it’s a good story, and if there isn’t a story you make it up as usual, so what difference?”
It was the same in China last weekend when he was asked about the protests. “What protests?” he countered.
Such comments do both him and the sport no credit, making him sound insensitive to the very real concerns which people out here are literally dying to draw attention to.
The sad thing is this crisis was entirely predictable. Formula One journalists have copped a certain amount of criticism this week for venturing into areas of conflict to ask for people’s thoughts about the race, to try to report on what is happening. For deigning to be reporters, in other words.
What did the Bahraini and Formula One authorities think? That they would sit in their hotels all week, only venturing to the track to talk about rear wings and F-ducts?
The best possible outcome will see everyone - Formula One staff, Bahrainis, ex-pats, everyone caught up in this - emerge through the weekend unscathed.
The worst case scenario? It doesn’t bear thinking about. But it could mean Todt and Ecclestone are gored on the horns of a dilemma of their own making.