While last Friday's announcement of the 2012 schedule caught everyone by surprise, we reacted quickly by focusing on the 2012 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix and the June 17th date for the race. Since the news has settled down a bit and I've had some time to go back and look a little closer, I think the issue of the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix needs to be explained a bit.
'A Day of Rage'
With the announcement the Bahrain Grand Prix being reinstated on the 2011 calendar (it was canceled earlier this year), protesters and human rights groups in Bahrain are calling for a 'Day of Rage' to counter the decision by the Kingdom of Bahrain and the FIA.
As the FIA World Motor Sports Council announced on Friday, the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix is now back on the calendar this year and set for October 30th. In order to make room, the Indian Grand Prix has now been pushed back to December 11th following the Brazilian Grand Prix over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend. Not only does that leave a short 13 weeks break period between the 2011 and 2012 season, it also means that Bahrain will be 19 weeks apart from its 2012 position at the beginning of the next race season.
According to the press release, FIA Vice President Carlos Gracia spent May 31st in Bahrain to assess the situation and visit with officials from various Ministries, Circuit officials and a representative from the National Institute of Human Rights. All of these reassurances however, are not enough to truly shed some honest light on the situation.
One Day On-Site Inspection Enough?
First, I have to question the thoroughness of such an on-site visit. Could this on-site visit that lasted just one day really be enough to determine the appropriateness of the race? An F1 race is no small impact on a city, on the contrary, officials from FIA and Bahrain proclaim that the impact to the economy is nearly $500 million dollars. With over 100,000 people attending the race, the presence of F1 will be nearly impossible to ignore, and for the citizens of Bahrain, an easy target of criticism and anger as their brothers and sisters are standing up for their rights against the oppressive regime.
Now it would be a mistake to assume that politics and F1 are independent. After all, business and politics are closely intertwined with F1. A similar problem faced Formula 1 for the 1985 South Afrian Grand Prix, when several teams protested the GP due to the existence of apartheid in that country. Following this race, F1 did not return until 1992 following the end of of the policy in 1991. But the remains of the discussion and lingering attitude of the ignorant Formula 1 policy still tarnishes the return of Formula 1 to South Africa.
Reactions From Citizens, Drivers and Teams
Since the announcement, several people have come out and declared their disapproval of the decision. F1 has been warned by Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, that protesters are calling for a 'Day of Rage' to protest the reinstated grand prix (see Planet F1).
From the driver's perspective, one of the most vocal advocates for a more sensitive approach to Bahrain has been Red Bull Driver Mark Webber, and with a tweet-heard-around-the-world from his official twitter account @aussiegrit, he said "When people in a country are being hurt, the issues are bigger than sport. Let's hope the right decision is made..." Clearly, Mark has a good point...
Red Bull Racing released a statement on their website saying "We will go through the correct channels and discuss this decision within the appropriate forum with the other F1 teams and our fellow FOTA members." It's expected that the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) will be meeting again soon to discuss their position on the decision to return to Bahrain. This may be the early warnings of a possible rebellious decision to not participate, similar to the threats by Ligier and Renault preceding the 1985 South African Grand Prix. One of the major concerns that a team would likely endure is the ability to get insurance to take the team and it's assets and employees to the race. This would likely be extremely expensive given the current situation and could prohibit the teams, especially lower budget teams, to travel to Bahrain.
Fans and non-fans are speaking their mind as well. Even before the announcement of the schedule by the FIA, the online petition giant AVAAZ.org was well underway to expanding their plee to help stop F1 going back to Bahrain. Their petition has reached nearly 450,000 signatures in just 72 hours, and continues to grow steadily. This kind of pressure is hard to ignore and if it continues, will be a highly effective tool at reaching the world's media.
Keeping It In Perspective
Is a human life worth the sponsorship money and global exposure of the sport? Clearly not; this is the extreme case but the sensitivity of the situation should be handled with extreme care. Formula 1 does not want to have blood on it's hands should protests about the sport turn violent and result in more bloodshed. This would forever tarnish the relationship of the sport with Bahrain, and potentially interfere with Middle-East relations with Western Countries (the last thing anyone wants right now).
No different than the earlier season decision to postpone the race until later in 2011, it's still too early to hold another race in Bahrain. Formula One should respectfully decline the invitation to return. If the teams are unwilling to spend the money to travel to Bahrain and see the race, are regular citizens going to risk getting caught up in civil unrest to attend the emotionally-charged and debated race? We need to keep things in perspective; this is, after all, a sport. It's not our place to get between the citizens of Bahrain and their Government.