The track has barely cooled off in Shanghai, where Nico Rosberg fended off what little challenge McLaren’s two former world champions could put up on Sunday to win the first race of the year for Mercedes. It was the first victory in the 26-year-old driver’s burgeoning career, and it signals the return to prominence for Ross Brawn’s team after two years of falling behind the triumvirate of McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari.
Unfortunately there is little time to celebrate for Mercedes. Rosberg’s victory only closed the chapter on the one thing distracting everyone involved with Formula 1 from the realities of next week’s stop on the season calendar. Formula 1 majordomo Bernie Ecclestone announced from China that, despite continued unrest, the stop in Bahrain would remain on the calendar. The announcement prompted protesters to burn Ecclestone’s image in effigy, and sent teams scrambling to heighten their security detail for the journey into a civil-war zone.
Why would a series as lucrative as Formula 1 want to risk its investment and its primary assets to race in a land of political unrest and civil strife? Ultimately it all traces back to the lucre, a power play where monetary benefits trump moral costs at every turn…
On April 4, 2004, Bahrain became the first Middle East nation to host a Formula 1 grand prix event when the $150 million Bahrain International Circuit opened to great fanfare in Sakhir. Ferrari teammates Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello drove away from the field on the course, finishing 1-2 in the inaugural edition of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Schumacher, in the last year of his championship run at Ferrari, would set a benchmark lap time on the track that still exists as the record.
For the next six years, the race would remain a fixture on the F1 season calendar. That all changed last season, when the Arab Spring set off a chain of protests throughout the Middle East. In Bahrain, a country of just 1.2 million citizens, as many as one in every five Bahrainis have participated in the demonstrations calling for greater democratic governance and the abdication of the monarchy. Violence has erupted at several turns, and Ecclestone and the FIA were forced to first postpone and then cancel outright the 2011 race at the Bahrain International Circuit.
A year later, the situation on the ground remains volatile. The predominantly Shi’a Muslim citizenry continues to protest the heavy-handed crackdown of the Sunni leadership. Violence levels fluctuate, but the threat of escalation remains a fixture of everyday life in the island kingdom.
The protests have increased in recent months once again, as the one-year anniversary of the uprising passed in February. That same month, activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja — given a sentence of life imprisonment for his role in spearheading the grassroots anti-government campaign — began his hunger strike which stretches into its second month and has left him on the precipice of mortality.
The climate in the nation is one of uncertainty, where Formula 1′s return to the island remains in question despite the repeated affirmations by Ecclestone that the race will go on as scheduled. The desire to even have an auto race in Sakhir remains a heated question, one for which there are no easy answers for any party concerned.
The financial reasons for racing in Bahrain are clear enough. For the FIA, the race at the Sakhir circuit remains one of its most lucrative stops of the season, with the Bahraini government paying one of the largest fees of any event for the right to appear on the calendar. Over the weekend of practices, qualifying and the race itself, hundreds of millions of dollars flow into Bahrain from the flood of spectators. Thousands of local citizens are directly or indirectly employed due to the race, at the circuit and through increased hours handling the influx of short-term visitors. And the race puts the tiny nation on the international radar in a way few other events could.
Because it provides such a public-relations boon for the nation, Bahrain has been quick to denounce any pronouncements about the deteriorating situation within its borders as overblown, underhanded and lacking in truth. But this is the same government that has turned its firepower on its citizens, leading to the confirmed deaths of 86 civilians and injuries to thousands more. Propaganda by its nature is meant to put a positive spin on a paradoxical situation.
Drivers have expressed their reservations about heading to Bahrain this year after last season’s event was canceled. But the threat to safety goes beyond the men in the cockpit of these high-performance open-wheel rides. As Mark Webber told the BBC, “Obviously we are putting an immense amount of trust into the FIA — I’m not talking about the drivers, I’m talking about you guys (the media), photographers, catering, everybody going to and from that track each day. Competing at that track and having a normal grand prix weekend is what we would all love to see.”
Already the situation has cost one person her job. Refusing to attend the Bahrain event on moral grounds, a member of the Williams F1 catering staff had her contract terminated by mutual consent. Williams has only commented publicly that they were concerned that others of a similar disposition might follow suit if they did not hold the first protesting employee to the terms of her contract. In the world of Formula 1 racing, there is no such thing a conscientious objector status.
While most teams are beefing up security measures for their machines and the men who drive them, the support staff does not fall under this aegis. Downplaying the situation, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh waved off any criticisms of the decision to go to Bahrain when he spoke with the Daily Telegraph. ”We are always cautious and mindful of the safety of our staff but we have taken no special [security] measures,” Whitmarsh said. “At the moment there are clearly problems in Bahrain, but we don’t believe there are individual threats posed to us. There is a lot of stress going to Brazil and to India. None of us know what is going to happen on the way back in to Shanghai tonight — and with the way my driver is driving it may be even more dangerous than Brazil.”
Dismissive attitudes such as this one only expose further the logic of Formula 1. The teams can have all the concerns in the world about a certain venue for racing, but as soon as Ecclestone utters his proclamations the collective marches in lockstep. Any concerns are deemed trivial, and anybody unwilling to incur whatever risks are thrown their way are left upon the scrap heap of personnel past.
So Rosberg will be left to try to defend his inaugural F1 victory and move up the standings in an environment that continues to be volatile beyond the track, and the rest of the teams will have more than just their car configurations in mind as they go about the next week of business. An economic boon for all the principals in the situation, the grand prix must go on, no matter the criticisms of human-rights organizations or people within the teams themselves. Totalitarian states like the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Kingdom of Ecclestone deserve one another, for the roots of their motivation are a concentration of power and money into their own fingertips at the expense of justice and security.