Controversy Surrounds F1 in Bahrain


(Photo: Morio)

It seems there won't be a Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain this year. The most powerful man in Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, says there can't be. That contradicts an earlier decision by motor racing's governing body, the International Automobile Federation or FIA, to go ahead with a 2011 Bahrain race.

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Formula One has held races in Bahrain for many years with great success. This year's Bahrain Grand Prix, though, was cancelled because of the anti-government protests in the country, and the brutal government crackdown on the protesters.

The FIA had reversed course after one of its commissioners visited Bahrain and declared that all was back to normal in Bahrain, and that the country's king had established a process for national reconciliation.

Therefore, said the FIA, the Grand Prix of Bahrain would be reinstated on the Formula One 2011 calendar, in October. Racing officials had obviously been reassured by the government's PR line.

"For us, hosting the Grand Prix is a uniting force," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa al-Khalifa, the head of the Bahraini Economic Development Board. "And there's a commitment to resolve all issues in an open and transparent way. And this is His Majesty's call for dialogue, where all people come and sit in a civilized way, discuss the problems we've had, discuss how to deal with them, and unite and find a peaceful way forward."

But that view is contested by human rights groups, which say the crackdown on the opposition in Bahrain continues.
Human rights activists strongly condemned the FIA's decision. So did the teams that compete in Formula One. And so does the man who used to run FIA, Max Mosley.

"Problem with Bahrain," Mosley said, "is that (there is) best evidence that there's been a brutal suppression, and a lot of the doctors and nurses who treated the injured have been locked up and badly treated, according to credible reports. Now that goes way beyond what should be allowed, and if you then are part of the machine which is pretending that's not happening, it's not acceptable."

Mosley, like many in Formula One, believes that having a Grand Prix in Bahrain this year amounts to helping those in power pretend all is well in the country. Former Formula One champion Damon Hill also thinks FIA officials need to get their priorities straight.

Hill thinks FIA should have come out and expressed concern about what's happening in Bahrain before announcing any future races in the kingdom. "They just completely missed that boat," Hill said. "So I think the trouble with Formula One is that it's a bubble. It goes around the world and people live in this bubble and they seem to feel they're immune to everything else that's happening."

Ignoring the outcry over human rights violations in Bahrain could impact Formula One's bottom line, if TV networks and sponsors were to drop their support for the wildly expensive racing circuit.

That would explain the gap between the governing body of the sport and Formula One's commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone. He came out today and squashed the idea of a 2011 Grand Prix in Bahrain. Ecclestone told the BBC that the race is just not going to happen this year.

Of course, there's always next year. The 2012 Formula One calendar is already out. And the first race of the year is scheduled in — that's right, Bahrain.