Thursday, 19 April 2012

F1 in Bahrain

I’m a Formula 1 fan, and pretty much have been since I was born. As a very young child, I’d settle in on a Sunday to watch the races with my dad and, hopefully, if circumstances allowed, my granddad. My earliest memories of the sport coincide with what I consider to be its golden age, the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, when the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were racing wheel to wheel, and a certain Michael Schumacher first got behind the wheel of an F1 car.

I’ve watched every season of racing since then, even the, dare I say it, somewhat less interesting ones. I’ve had friends who are also into Formula 1, and am in the quite wonderful situation of having a girlfriend who also enjoys it and will watch races with me. But at the moment, it seems that everyone, fan or otherwise, is talking about Formula 1, with one question on their lips:

Should this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix go ahead?

No, it shouldn’t. The Bahrain International Circuit is a dull track, which more often than not leads to processional races which struggle to hold the interest of even the most die-hard F1 fanatic. The fact that boring tracks like this and the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi are holding annual races, while classic, exciting tracks like the Belgian circuit of Spa-Francorchamps are being phased out or only getting a race every other year, is an absolute crime.

But that’s really not the point here. The issue of the Bahrain Grand Prix is a human rights issue. Now, I’m not going to claim I’m an expert on what’s going on in Bahrain, but I do know what the terms “civil unrest” and “anti-government protests” mean. There are many who feel that staging the Bahrain Grand Prix, which, as of this writing, is still due to go ahead, is rewarding those in power, who are largely seen to be the cause of all the problems in the first place. As such, many are questioning the FIA’s, Formula 1’s governing body, decision to proceed with the race.

The thing is, it’s not like there’s no precedence here. Bahrain is hardly the first country to hold a Grand Prix while there are major human rights issues being argued. This year alone, China and the USA, two countries which have had serious questions about human rights raised at them in the last few years, are holding races. Did this stop the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend being one of the most exciting races of the last few years? No, it didn’t. Go back further, and in the seventies and eighties, South Africa held a Grand Prix at the Kyalami circuit while Apartheid was in full swing. Racing in controversial areas is nothing new.

But this isn’t the whole story when it comes to the Bahrain Grand Prix. There are fears for the safety of the drivers and teams, with many worried that the situation in the country will make the race a target for violent protests. Again, it wouldn’t be the first time. Back in 1958, the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, widely regarded as the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time, was kidnapped and held hostage during the weekend of the Cuban Grand Prix by Cuban rebels. While Fangio was released, and even became good friends with his captors, it still goes to show what a high profile target a Grand Prix driver is, even as recently as last year when there was an attempt over the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend at Interlagos by an unknown group to kidnap the 2009 world champion, Jenson Button.

A Formula 1 race is always going to be a high profile target for misguided people determined to send a message, and despite the best efforts and assurances from the FIA that there is enough security in Bahrain this weekend, four members of the Force India team have already experienced problems when their car was caught up in a petrol bomb attack. Even after this, most of the drivers are giving us the quote that if the FIA says it’s safe, then there’s no problem (except Nico Hulkenberg, who, quite bravely, it has to be said, has spoken out against the decision to race). To be honest, until the race actually goes ahead on Sunday, there’s no way of knowing whether the FIA are right or not.

But that doesn’t answer the question of whether the race should go ahead or not. Formula 1 has always maintained that it exists outside of politics, and is only interested in providing entertainment for the legions of motor racing fans, who love watching the best drivers in the world compete on the most challenging circuits in the world. This has always been the case, and ever more shall be so. Only, it isn’t. After the 1985 race, the South African Grand Prix was removed from the calendar for seven years as a direct result of the country’s apartheid policy. And while twenty years ago the world was a much larger place, meaning political situations in other countries amounted to no more than a five minute piece on the six o’clock. You could easily tune them out, because you knew so little about them. It was easy to get away with not being political, because no one knew what the politics were. But times have changed, and in this day and age of twenty-four hour news channels, social networking sites and bloggers with strong opinions, there’s very little we don’t know. In this climate, something as big as Formula 1 saying it isn’t political is both old fashioned and na├»ve.

I love Formula 1, and will continue to do so until my dying day. But I recognise that there are times where it isn’t doing enough. Sometimes it just needs to pick a damn side and make some kind of statement. It has the power to do that. Just look at all the money the Japanese Grand Prix raised for the victims of the Earthquake last year for an idea of what F1 can do when it tries. The fact that, more often than not, it ignores this power is a real shame.