Sunday, June 12, 2011

F1 in a spin over Bahrain

Three days after motorsport's governing body, the FIA, reinstated the Bahrain Grand Prix on to this year's Formula 1 calendar, the likelihood of the race actually taking place remains as uncertain as ever.

As FIA president Jean Todt was telling the BBC on Monday that the situation in Bahrain was now back to normal following the civil unrest that led to the race being postponed in February, the F1 teams were discussing what to do next.

I understand that the teams all feel that going to Bahrain this season is not a good idea, and that their objections are based on two main points:

Logistical - as Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn has pointed out, the F1 team members have been working flat out since January, and shoe-horning an extra race into an already crowded season's end, and extending the championship until mid-December, is a step too far.

Ethical and moral - trying to bring such issues into sports scheduling raises all sorts of difficult questions, such as exactly where you draw the line. After all, Bahrain is not the only country on the F1 schedule about which human rights groups have concerns. Which is why sports' bodies generally try to stay out of politics. But the teams feel that if holding a grand prix in a strife-torn area is likely to exacerbate the situation, then that is on the wrong side of the line.

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No team has made these views public yet, with the only official statement so far emerging from their umbrella group Fota, stating that the issue would be discussed internally and that a joint position may be defined. It may be that this will happen over the course of the Canadian Grand Prix this weekend.

In the meantime, F1 is in a state of limbo that reflects badly on it on several different levels.

How, many outside the sport will ask, can it have taken so long to come to this decision? And how, having done so, can there still be uncertainty about whether the Bahrain Grand Prix will be held this year?

There are different versions of exactly what happened on Friday in the meeting of the FIA World Council that resulted in Bahrain's reinstatement.

FIA insiders have said that while the governing body may be aware of the teams' reported unease, it has received so far only a letter from Brawn and one from the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, outlining their concerns about safety.

So if the teams felt uneasy about the race, why did not any of their representatives raise an official objection?

Equally, though, with the world's media and Amnesty International reporting continuing human rights abuses in Bahrain, was the FIA right to conclude in its own report that the situation is now "very stable and very quiet", as Todt put it?

Even as he justified the world council's decision, though, Todt may have been laying the ground for calling off the race - he gave himself some 'wriggle room'.

After a lengthy exposition on how all major parties in Bahrain backed the reinstatement of the race, and how United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was talking about "restoring a good situation in this part of the world", Todt added: "But we are talking about 30 October, so it will be monitored and things will be taken into consideration. The decision to go ahead was taken regarding how things are now."

Could that be the signal that another U-turn is on the cards?

I'm told that over the next few days the teams are likely to quietly begin to lobby the FIA to reconsider, pointing out that far from helping heal the wounds caused by the violent suppression of February's pro-democracy protests, the decision to hold a race already looked to be doing the opposite.

Only on Monday, the Bahrain Centre of Human Rights indicated that it would be calling for a "day of rage" on 30 October, the date of the rescheduled race, while the UK sports minister warned that holding the race would lead to a "disaster".

While all the teams are uneasy (even McLaren, whose biggest shareholder is a financial group owned by the Bahrain government), I'm told that the greatest concerns are held by three organisations - Renault, Mercedes and tyre supplier Pirelli, none of whom were available for comment.

As the three biggest corporate entities in F1, this would not be a surprise. They have well developed corporate social responsibility programmes, and they have the most to lose from a PR point of view from the inevitable negative fall-out that holding a race this year would create.

Todt acknowledged that it was "their choice" if they wanted to boycott the race - and there is precedent for that in F1.

In 1985, Renault and their fellow French team Ligier refused to take part in the South African Grand Prix, in a country still nine years away from the end of apartheid, following pressure from their country's government. And a number of sponsors of the teams that did take part removed their logos from the cars.

I understand that a boycott is not, for now, on the agenda. Even so, having just announced that the race will go ahead, the FIA finds itself in a difficult situation. But there is a way out.

Suppose, quietly, behind the scenes, the teams make it clear that they are unhappy about the Bahrain Grand Prix going ahead. As part of this pressure, it is made clear to the Bahraini authorities that if they insist on holding the race, some teams and sponsors will not attend. There is even the chance that the sport's tyre supplier would refuse to participate - meaning a race could not happen in any event.

In those circumstances, Bahrain would be faced with a choice.

They could go ahead with the race in the wake of a stream of statements from major global corporate stakeholders that they felt the event was untenable - not exactly a desirable situation for a significant international banking hub.

Or they could quietly announce that, given the circumstances, the risk of further protest, of putting pressure on a sensitive situation, in hindsight they believed that the best action would be to call off the race after all.


Joe Kelly Dave Kennedy Loris Kessel Bruce Kessler Nicolas Kiesa Leo Kinnunen Danny Kladis

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