Green light for Bahrain proves money trumps ideals
Bernie Ecclestone might have been prepared to stand a $40m [£25.5m] loss if the Bahrain Grand Prix did not go ahead this year, having insisted that any decision would not be based on financial implications.
But it was very definitely about money for the Bahrainis, who pioneered Formula One in the Middle East as a crucial marketing initiative based around highlighting the country's attractions as a "friendly" place to do business.
That image has taken a beating as severe as any dished out to political dissenters since the much-publicised unrest gathered pace there from February onwards, and the tourism industry there is stone dead. Small wonder that a deputation of Bahrainis has been so assiduously courting F1 teams and other interested parties at the past three grands prix in Turkey, Spain and Monaco.
Zayed R Alzayani, the chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), claimed in a statement yesterday that the State of National Safety has been lifted and that other countries have withdrawn travel restrictions. He spoke of the event being a source of national pride, but his most telling comments were about the boost it will give a damaged economy. The Bahrain Grand Prix attracts 100,000 visitors, supports 3,000 jobs and generates around $500m of economic benefit. End of story.
If you believed the Bahraini delegation, things have not just returned to a calm state in Manama, but were grossly over-exaggerated by the media in the first place. But video film of atrocities, and reports of medical workers being imprisoned, give the lie to such claims.
At least half of the F1 teams have been wary of a return this year, but after FIA vice-president Carlos Gracia visited Bahrain on 31 May to assess the situation, holding meetings with the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Bahrain Motor Federation and Bahrain International Circuit, as well as Tariq Al Saffar at the National Institute of Human Rights, they were persuaded to revise their views.
Taking advice that the King of Bahrain has established a "political dialogue and reconciliation process", the World Motor Sport Council met in Barcelona yesterday and decided to reinstate the race on the 2011 calendar. It will be held on 30 October, the date originally reserved for India.
Perhaps we should not be surprised; some teams have connections with the Bahrainis, for whom a swift return is crucial to rebuilding their shattered business and tourism industries using F1 as a tool by which to convince a sceptical world all is well.
But should F1 really be going back to a region in which, if news reports are to be believed, a government's agents have been killing its own people? Is endorsement of the ruling regime really the image that F1 should be presenting? It is not long since the sport banned tobacco sponsorship, opening the way for banks, mobile phone, computer and drinks companies to enter a more socially acceptable sponsorship arena.
Call me cynical, but where such big business is concerned I would not have expected any other outcome. Under its current structure F1 will always be the most pragmatic of sports. Money will trump politics – and human rights issues – any time.
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