Race Weekend Central

Formula 1 Friday: Sport and Politics

George Orwell, ever the forward thinker, once mused, “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another, at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.” Seldom have we felt the reality of these words more than after the painful events that unfolded at the climax of the Boston Marathon last weekend (and our sympathies from this side of the pond are extended to you on this tragedy – how callous to target those who are more than often running to help others).

The Bahrain Grand Prix remains a controversial stop on the Formula One tour, with management forging ahead despite the volatile and frequently unwelcoming atmosphere of the country.

Sport, of course is meant to be the great leveler – a gladiatorial competition where politics, gender (sometimes), color and race are cast aside. However, uncomfortably, sometimes sport and politics unavoidably clash, and the noise can reverberate rather too loud. Over here in the UK, David Miliband, a respected politician and director of Sunderland Football Club resigned from his position as the club had appointed Paolo Di Canio as manager – a self-admitted fascist and Mussolini sympathizer. At Di Canio’s first press conference, none of the questions were about sport, his club’s precarious position in the league table, what he was going to bring to the team in terms of management – they were all, without exception, about politics. Uncomfortable, indeed.

The word of the past fortnight or so over here has been “divisive” – in the main, this has been with reference to the recently departed Margaret Thatcher (all the word is that she was pretty popular over with you guys?) who, putting aside the strength of her leadership, was nothing if not a dividing influence through our country during the ’80s, with her fingerprints still visible on the politics of today. However, it could equally have referred to this weekend’s visit of Formula One to the political hotbed of Bahrain. The race in Bahrain has been shrouded in controversy, since the cancellation of the 2011 event following brutal government crackdowns on pro-Democracy protests which claimed the lives of a number of Bahrainis. Amid a massive security operation, the 2012 race went ahead, yet even with that overbearing presence, members of the Force India team were involved in a petrol bombing attack which led to their withdrawal from the second practice session, along with a number of very nervous team members. There was a general feel amongst the teams in 2012 that they shouldn’t be there, but (and how apposite we should have mentioned Mussolini) the demands of the generalissimo Bernie Ecclestone held sway and, under some duress, the teams acquiesced.

Although the news reports may have been a little quieter, the situation within the Kingdom has barely improved over the past 12 months. Despite a much-vaunted independent commission report into the troubles, little retrospective or positive action has been taken to resolve issues. Added to this point, the somewhat clumsily named “February 14 Youth Coalition,” an underground movement named after the date of the first uprising, has vowed to embark on a week-long campaign, provocatively entitled “volcanic flame.” Promising significant protests around the Grand Prix, there are also threats of roadblocks and other disruptive measures leading up and into Sunday’s race. So far, though it’s been comparatively peaceful with the caveat the pro-democracy protesters have also been frustrated by increased security measures by the government, aimed at driving them out of the capital. I think we can all see the potential for a flashpoint here. The protests are being driven underground, and as a result, the festering resentment toward government oppression continues.

Jean Todt, President of F1’s governing body, the FIA, has attempted to provide a placatory statement, saying “it is our firm belief that sport, and the F1 Grand Prix, can have a positive and healing effect in situations where conflict, social unrest and tensions are causing distress.” Meanwhile, Bernie Ecclestone has, with his customary questionable concept of diplomacy stated that the protests were no different to “those complaining about Mrs. Thatcher.” Thanks for that, Bernie.

Healing effect or unwanted presence in a region of conflict and social unrest? The Bahrain Grand Prix goes on anyway.

More pertinently, perhaps are the words of Said Yousif, a spokesman for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who commented “there has been a government crackdown here and it started two weeks ago, especially in the villages close to the F1 track, and 65 people have been arrested. Leaders have been beaten and tortured before being released, so everyone can see the marks of beating and torture. Houses have been razed in different villages. Tear gas has been used at close range.” Meanwhile, Bernie and the circus make £40m from the event. Sport as a healer? Perhaps not.

The Race –

So far, as you may have noticed, my predictions have continued to be utterly hopeless, so who to cast your eye over this week in the dusty environment of the Bahrain circuit? Well, Mark Webber has complained that the situation with this year’s tires has turned F1 into the sporting equivalent of WWF Wrestling. He deserves some luck, does Mark, so far be it for me to tip him for the win this weekend. I’ll pick him for third position, pipping the new enfant terrible of F1, Seb Vettel after a last-lap tussle. Heading them home is a resurgent Felipe Massa. Having led the Grand Prix for all but three laps, he’s asked to move out of the way for eventual winner Fernando Alonso. Put your money on it.

…so that’ll be Kimi for the win, then…

Enjoy the race and stay safe!

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