Fresh doubts have emerged about the viability of this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix after a human rights group in the Gulf kingdom called on the Formula 1 teams to boycott the race in the wake of continuing civil unrest.
It is the first public intervention by an interested party on the subject of the wisdom of holding the race since F1′s governing body the FIA confirmed Bahrain’s place on the 2012 calendar last month.
Bahrain’s inclusion on the official schedule raised eyebrows. That’s because unrest continues there, despite pledges by the ruling royal family to increase human rights and democratic representation in an attempt to go on from the disturbances that led to the cancellation of last year’s race.
The call for a boycott – by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) – became public two days after police were accused of beating a leading opposition activist on the back, neck and head at a rally on Friday.
Bahrain’s Sakir International Circuit has not had a Grand Prix since 2010. Photo: Getty
That man was the vice-president of the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, who also happens to be the man who gave the interview calling for the boycott of the race.
Rajab told a leading Arab business magazine: “We will campaign for… drivers and teams to boycott. The government wants Formula 1 to tell the outside world that everything is back to normal.
“Formula 1, if they come, they are helping the government to say [it is normal]. We would prefer it if they didn’t take part. I am sure the drivers and teams respect human rights.”
F1, then, appears headed for another long-running saga over whether the Bahrain race can go ahead this year – just as in 2011, when it was four months between the outbreak of civil unrest and the race finally being cancelled.
During that time, it became clear that F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone was keen for the event to take place, despite the concerns of many both inside and outside the sport that holding a race would send the incorrect message.
Those concerns remain alive today.
Ecclestone was unavailable for comment, but I know he and the FIA are still determined to hold this year’s race.
At the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix six weeks ago, he told BBC Sport: “It’s on the calendar. We’ll be there. Unless something terrible happens to stop us.”
Questioned if he had any concerns about the race becoming a magnet for problems in the kingdom, he said: “No, I don’t see that.”
On Monday, the race organisers insisted the race should go ahead, pointing out that the government had already started down the path to reform and insisting that the race was “supported by an overwhelming majority of people from all sections of society in Bahrain and represents a symbol of national unity”.
But within F1 teams, there are murmurings of unease. No-one will publicly comment on the situation, let alone call for the race to be boycotted, but some insiders do believe there is a strong chance the race will be called off.
For the teams and other stakeholders in F1, such as sponsors and suppliers, it is not so much a question of the lack of human rights in Bahrain per se. After all, it is far from the only grand prix venue where there are concerns on that subject; indeed, very few countries have blemish-free records.
Nor, assuming the situation in Bahrain does not escalate, does it seem there is a serious concern that the safety of personnel who would attend the race would be threatened.
Of greater relevance is the effect going there could have on the organisations involved.
The huge problem with Bahrain is that the race is so closely tied to the royal family – particularly the crown prince, the King’s son. So it will inevitably become a target for protests – as has now happened with Bahrain Human Rights Watch linking the two things directly.
Last year, the opposition declared a “day of rage” for the date of the race, and some in F1 say they expect a similar thing to happen imminently for race day this year – 22 April.
Once human rights groups have linked the race to the problems in the country, it becomes very uncomfortable for the major global companies in F1 to be associated with it. For them, it would directly contradict with their global social responsibility programmes, which have become so vital to many international companies.
This is one of the main reasons the situation came to a head last year. While the teams were careful to say nothing along these lines publicly, several of them let it be known privately to Ecclestone and the FIA that either they or their sponsors were not pleased about attending the race.
Among those with the largest concerns were Mercedes – which runs its own team as well as supplying engines to McLaren and Force India – and F1′s only tyre supplier, Pirelli. Neither was available for comment on Monday.
I’m told, though, that these two, among others, remain concerned about holding a race in 2012. If Mercedes were to choose not to go, that would mean a grid shorn of six of its 24 cars. If Pirelli followed suit, no-one could race.
It is unlikely to come to that, of course.
One insider said that, of those with the power to do so, no-one wants to call the race off, as whoever does will be out of pocket.
If Ecclestone or the FIA jump first, the Bahrainis don’t have to pay their race fee, whereas if the Bahrainis themselves choose to call the race off, F1 gets to keep the cash. And when it is a reputed £25m you’re talking about, that’s a serious consideration, whoever you are.
Last year, it was Bahrain who ultimately made the call – after it became clear that there was a serious threat of a boycott if they did not.
Will it get that far this time? No-one knows, but Ecclestone is unlikely to be in any rush to go the situation along.
What would you do if distress did flare up in February or March, I questioned him in Brazil.
“I’d wait and see what happened and then choose,” he answered. “Up to now they [the Bahrain royal family] have done everything they said they were going to do.”
The next two months are likely to be a game of brinksmanship over who blinks first, with silent diplomacy taking place behind the scenes. Whatever solution is found is unlikely to be a quick one.