Formula 1: Why the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix Must Go Ahead

Neil JamesFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2012

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 20:  A poster advertises for the upcoming Formula One race at Bahrain International Circuit as cars drive by on the highway on February 20, 2011 in Manama, Bahrain. The season-opening race is in doubt due to the continued unrest in the country. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has said he will leave the decision on whether to hold the Bahrain Grand Prix to the country's Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa. The final decision is expected by February 22.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
John Moore/Getty Images

Last week saw fresh debate and coverage of the ongoing troubles in the Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain.  Much of the attention given by western media focused on the presence of the 2012 Formula 1 calendar of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The anniversary of the "Day of Rage"—February 14th—which marked the start of the 2011 uprising, saw protesters again clash with the authorities.  Over 120 activists were injured, some seriously, after security forces broke up demonstrations using tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.

This new wave of violence reignited the debate about whether the Grand Prix should go ahead, or whether F1 should make a statement and stay away.  On February 15th, Maryam al-Khawaja, head of foreign relations at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), called on F1 bosses to again remove the race from the calendar.

The government wants the message to go out that it is business as usual.  But (yesterday) armored vehicles went into residential areas for the first time since last year's martial law ended in June.

I have heard reports of protesters being thrown from rooftops and others having legs broken.  That it is why Formula 1 should make a stand and call this race off.  If the F1 race were cancelled it would help give a message to the Bahrain government.

I disagree with this viewpoint—that holding race would help to confirm international acceptance of the current government's methods.  It's a race, not a statement, and F1 usually steers well clear of international politics.

Remember the Turkish Grand Prix podium controversy of 2006?  The country almost lost its Grand Prix for actions which threatened the political neutrality of the sport and the FIA.

The 2010 race was won by Fernando Alonso for Ferrari
The 2010 race was won by Fernando Alonso for FerrariGetty Images/Getty Images

And speaking of the FIA, they provided an opposing viewpoint to that of the BCHR, making it clear they wished the race to go ahead.

The FIA, like many in the diplomatic community in the kingdom, the main political opposition, as well as the UK-Bahrain All-Party Parliamentary Group writing in the Times, believes the staging of a Grand Prix would be beneficial in bridging some of the difficulties Bahrain is experiencing.

The FIA is not in a position to influence political matters in a sovereign country such as Bahrain, and we can only wish for a long-term peaceful solution.  A number of reforms have been enacted, others are going through legislation.  We warmly welcome this, as does the motorsport community which we represent.

On this occasion, I think the FIA is right.

A few years ago, the average F1 fan might have known little about Bahrain.  But after February 14, 2011, we discovered a lot more about the country and the people. 

We've learnt about heavy-handedness on the part of security forces.  Torture of detainees.  Crackdowns on dissenting voices. Conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and between native and immigrant populations.

The uprising against the government of Bahrain highlighted many difficulties.

But 2011 saw a different picture
But 2011 saw a different pictureJohn Moore/Getty Images

But it did not create them.

And since then, though slowly and not to the degree of opposition activists might have wanted, some degree of reform, dialogue and reconciliation has been taking place.

The situations regarding human rights, freedom of speech and of expression, slow democratisation, relations between different religious factions—all were present when F1 first rolled into the Gulf state in 2004.  But no one was looking back then.

The eyes of the world being placed upon the country has helped move along what the protesters started.  People risked their lives so the world would pay attention. Isolating Bahrain and pushing it out of sight could undo whatever good work has been done and would be the worst possible course of action.

The 2009 Bahrain Grand Prix had a global audience of 115 million people (PDF).  2012 may have more.

And this time, the government of Bahrain will know that they're not just watching the race.