Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Should the Bahrain Grand Prix go ahead? The FIA has decided that it should which was clearly going to elicit some strong opinions from a lot of people but personally, I haven’t a clue if it’s the right choice or not. Myself, I’m reliant on whatever information is coming out of Bahrain and inevitably everyone has their own agenda and that’s where the picture starts to become some what murkier as conflicting reports emerge. Twelve months ago I was absolutely clear in my mind that Formula One should stay away from Bahrain, right now, I’m not convinced that the situation is really that clear cut. Afterall, Damon Hill has been to Bahrain and even he can’t make up his mind.
There seems to have been a widespread assumption that the Bahraini authorities are playing down the problems – something I’m not going to disagree with for a moment. However, what seems to be ignored is that opposition protesters also have their own agenda – it’s clearly in their interests to make the situation appear worse than it is and yet their story is taken at face value. It’s not surprising – everyone loves a good government conspiracy, political thrillers thrive on the fact. Looking through video footage, though, it seems clear that the numbers of protestors are no where near as small as one side would have you think but nor is it as high as the other suggests. So what is the truth?
The assumption about the protesters story is not helped by a media that’s seldom as independent as it likes to pretend to be and in this case, not necessarily even on the ground in Bahrain. One thing I’ve noticed in recent weeks is that several people I’ve talked to from outside the UK have compared the situation to last year’s English “Riots”. To me, that suggests that either they’re as mad as George Galloway comparing his by-election victory to the Arab Spring Uprising or that the actions of a small group of looters out to steal themselves a DVD player and some top-of-the-range sports gear has been grossly misrepresented outside the UK as a political statement. Bear that in mind and you have to question if they’re painting a genuine picture of Bahrain.
Despite ongoing grievances about prisoners from last spring’s uprising, it does seem that (some) lessons have been learned in the past twelve months. There are still protests happening, possibly an increasing number of them as Bahrain’s sporting jewel in the crown approaches, but there doesn’t seem to have been the heavy handed response that garnered international condemnation in 2011. That shouldn’t be underestimated – anger at the way the country is run is one thing, suppression of those wanting to express that anger a whole different game.
That’s not to say there haven’t been any incidents, notably a protester shot by someone in an unmarked car. There have also been reports of protesters using petrol bombs. However, by and large, protests seem to be passing peacefully with police maintaining a guarded watch, which is how it should be. Meanwhile, I’m not convinced that the presence of F1 is detrimental to further progress – having the F1 community in town increases international awareness of grievances without having to attack the race and those attending, as is and has already happened.
But is it safe for teams, media and fans attending the race? I honestly don’t know. Former Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, John Yates, who was heading the security operation at the London 2012 Olympics and is now on a short term contract with the Bahraini Government says it should be safe. But then he’s paid by the Bahraini government you might say. Either way, the situation is changing rapidly and what was true a few weeks ago when representatives of Lotus F1 visited, isn’t necessarily true now.
Is it better to be safe than sorry and not go? Well if it is safe I’d be pretty unhappy if I had a ticket and it was cancelled. As Mark Webber said today, “competing at that track and having a normal grand prix weekend is what we would all love to see.” To put it into context, ETA has threatened to attack the Valencia Grand Prix and nobody is questioning racing there, other than for purely (lack of) entertainment reasons. Silverstone and Hockenheim have not been immune to protesters and I sincerely hope Bahrain has had enough warning to fully prepared for a possible track incursion.
It’s been said that if the race goes ahead, it would be a sign of support for the authorities. Well, it’s equally true that any cancellation would be giving in to the demands of a vocal minority. It’s a difficult choice but certainly not as black and white and many seem to think.
So where does Formula One go from here? Undoubtedly, it was the FIA’s call. They are the ones in the position to be on the ground and assessing the real situation, not us “armchair commentators”. Of course, the situation may yet change further and the FIA may have to react to circumstances right up until the chequered flag is waved.
For all concerned, lets hope they’re making the right choice. Meanwhile, those in Bahrain who object to the way their country is run should use the opportunity to peacefully express their views with the World media on hand. Attacking F1 is not going to do them any favours any more than it will F1. After all, it’s arguable that closing the country to Western influence could help preserve the status quo.
Credit: Tilke GmbH