FIA President Jean Todt has spoken and Formula 1 will go next week to Bahrain. It is a curious decision and a huge risk for the sport, the FIA and for Todt himself. One has to ask why this has happened. It is clear that Todt really believes that the Grand Prix will go ahead without trouble, assured by his local men on the ground and their advisors. The goal is for the race to be seen as a unifying force and send out the message to the world that Bahrain is safe for business, tourism etc etc.
The race slogan is all about “unif1cation”, which is not the smartest thing, as this is clearly a political statement and the very first FIA Statute says that the federation will refrain from “manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect”. The last time that statute was used was six years ago when some misguided Turks decided to put Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat on the podium at the Turkish Grand Prix, billed as “the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, non-existent state that is recognised only by Turkey. The result was that the Turks were fined $5 million by the FIA. The government then lost interest in the race and it staggered on, unloved until the contract ran out last year. At the time the FIA said that “no compromise or violation of this neutrality is acceptable”. There is an argument that by involving itself in a highly politicised event, the FIA is in breach of its own statutes. There is no doubt, even without the ill-advised slogan, that the Grand Prix is a political issue in Bahrain. In a recent demonstration the opposition used protesters dressed as racing drivers, carrying machine guns to make their point. It was propaganda, of course, but it made an important point. Thousands marched with them.
There is also a certain amount of graffiti making the same point.
When it comes to propaganda, there is no question that both sides have been very busy in recent weeks, with the authorities finding people to say all the right things and the opposition trying to show that all is not good. The FIA, which is supposed not to involve itself in politics of any kind, has embraced the government argument, but as no-one inside the federation has questioned the activity (at least not openly), nothing has been done.
There is no doubt that there are people in Bahrain who honestly do believe that the race is what the country needs. Others (myself included) think that F1 is unwise to get involved at a time when things are unstable. When you boil it all down it is a question of timing. The government line has been that Bahrain is totally safe and that the violence that one can easily find on the Internet is the work of a tiny violent minority.
It is hard to know who is right. The fact that Lotus F1 Team sent a couple of people to Bahrain and they reported no problems is not really a good indication. The opposition did not know they were going and so they saw Bahrain without F1 being there. The real question is what happens when the entire circus comes to town, and the opposition knows that is happening.
The FIA has accepted in its press release that it is responsible for the calendar and for “the safety of the public, officials, drivers and teams”. It has, therefore, put itself in a highly vulnerable position if there is any violence against the F1 circus. The government has assured the FIA that the F1 circus will be safe. That is great, but is it wishful thinking? And is it really wise to believe a regime that last year denied all the claims made by the opposition, the international media and human rights organisations only to have almost all such claims proven to be true by an independent inquiry. After that the government said that it would follow the recommendations made but the same critics are now saying that this is not true either. The government says that things are taking longer than expected. Who does one believe?
The question now is whether or not there will be violence as a result of the race – which most F1 people seem to think is inevitable – and on that it is a matter of opinion at the moment. We will only find out when F1 gets there. And that is worrying.
There is no question that holding the race is a challenge to the opposition. If there is no response they will not only have wasted an opportunity, they will also be weakened in the eyes of the world. One could even argue that there is no choice but to try to do something. The Bahrainis have employed former Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Yates to advise them on policing and he admits that there may be violence, but says that it can be contained. That is fine, but there have been signs for some time that the opposition has become far more sophisticated in its protests than it was last year.
In recent months we have seen much evidence of this with civil disobedience, such as blocking roads, industrial sabotage has been mentioned by trade bodies and there is now a hunger striker in an advanced state of starvation. On the streets too there have been developments, with an upsurge in Molotov Cocktail attacks and, in the last few days, the first proper homemade bomb. Clearly the opposition has taken lessons from history in how resistance movements have used different methods when outright revolution has failed. What we have not yet seen is the use of assassination and kidnapping, although both have had a place in resistance movements in the past. During World War II the British Special Operation Executive developed a philosophy to use occasional assassinations to generate more recruits. The logic was this was very simple. The population was too scared to take the risk of taking direct action and so they needed to be jolted out of their inertia. An assassination was a challenge to a violent occupying force. The response was usually more violent and that outraged people so much that they decided to join the fight, despite the risks. The other value in such tactics is that it forces the authorities to protect its important people and that means that manpower is stretched. The use of kidnapping is something that was used to great effect in Beirut, but motor racing has its very own specific story in this respect, as back in 1958 Fidel Castro’s followers kidnapped World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio when he went to Cuba to take part in an event promoted by the government of dictator Fulgenio Batista. Fangio was held over the weekend and could not race. He was then released unharmed. This was a hugely successful move in terms of putting Castro on the international map and giving his movement credibility.
The authorities will presumably know all of this and that means that there will have to be substantial security cover around all high profile F1 people. The fear is that it will be the unprotected who will end up being the targets, simply because they were the only people available.
The question that no-one has been able to answer in all of this is why the race has been pursued with such determination when it would be so much more sensible for the sport to be risk-averse and to wait until things calm down, rather than forcing the issue and taking a risk that could damage the sport, the federation and, specifically, the president himself. If things get nasty in Bahrain, Todt has let himself no room for manoeuvre. Similarly, the local officials will be hopelessly compromised if there is any serious violence, and that would almost certainly mean the end of the event once and for all.
Thus far F1 has not covered itself in glory over the race. Everyone wants someone else to do something to stop the race happening. It has all been about positioning and propaganda (on both sides). Now the die is cast and F1 has to cross its fingers and hope… and ask whether this is the sort of situation that the sport wants to be in.