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.