I'm an F1 fan but I can't watch the Bahrain Grand Prix

The race will put a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime.

Formula One’s decision to go to Bahrain this weekend is a massive mistake. It’s not about the safety of the event itself, or the competitors, though that is a concern; it’s about legitimising a regime that has committed appalling crimes against its own people by holding a three-day carnival of glamour and speed.

The whole thing must jar with everyone involved, to be thinking about petrol bombs rather than petrol heads, to just hope that an event ends safely and with as little harm as possible instead of enjoying the spectacle. And for what? What will F1 have achieved by going to Bahrain in the first place? It’s a big shiny thumbs-up, a stamp of approval from the world sporting community and television audience, to a kingdom whose recent record on human rights is atrocious.

Is it really worth it? Bernie Ecclestone, the tiny grey figurehead of Formula One, thinks it is. While he casts doubts about races elsewhere in the world, he has been determined, it would seem, to press ahead with the sporting circus in Bahrain, despite last year’s event having been called off due to security fears. There is talk of "civil unrest" but this is more than a few protesters. This is a reaction to torture on a widespread scale, and it is being glossed over with a glamorous sporting event. Look at the shiny cars! Don’t look at the teargas and the batons!

I say this as an F1 fan. I’ve watched the sport for years, and loved its twists and turns. Sure, it’s elitist, it’s a massive waste of money, it’s a ridiculous pantomime at times, it can be horrifically tedious and boring at others; it’s environmentally atrocious, yes, I concede all of that – but for me and many others it’s one of the finest sporting spectacles in the world. I was lucky enough to see Senna, Prost and Mansell up close in their pomp back in the 1980s, and from then on I was hooked.

But I cannot bring myself to watch this weekend’s event. This weekend is not about sport; it’s about a huge bundle of cash being handed over in return for putting a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime. Deep down, the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right. How can you enjoy the thrill of the contest itself when you know that’s going on at the same time?

This whole shabby episode brings to mind those shameful cricket and rugby tours of apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. Sure, a lot of people are going to make a lot of money this weekend – some with a heavy heart, others just doing their jobs and trying to block out what’s going on in the background. But deep down the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right here. Something is deeply wrong, and by agreeing to participate, by saying that they will be there, they are letting it happen, and letting it continue.

By Sunday night, all will have been forgotten. The celebration rosewater will have be sprayed on the podium, and the fastest cars of the whole weekend will be the taxis back to the airport to get everyone the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Hopefully, Bahrain will not disappear from the headlines, and if nothing else this weekend, the only positive to take will be that more people than before knew about the human rights abuses going on there. That will be some semblance of a success to take from this grubby, grubby mess.

Bahraini children hold up pictures of tortured democracy activists. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.