Formula One: Bernie in Bahrain

By the fantastic Martin Rowson
By the fantastic Martin Rowson

Formula One was already fairly politically dubious, shadily nurtured by billionaire investors, hoovering up abhorrently large sums of money without yielding any substantial benefit for the majority of mankind, and generally representing the West’s flippant wastefulness at its most tastelessly extreme.

This weekend, however, Formula One showed the true extent of its gross detachment from reality – while ordinary Bahrainis were trampled by an authoritarian regime for having the sheer cheek to expect a modicum of democratic accountability from their government, the country’s Grand Prix was allowed to go on as normal.

Bahrain is nominally a constitutional monarchy, but political parties are banned – instead, members of political ‘societies’ are elected to a fairly ineffectual national parliament, while the Sunni royal family unaccountably govern a half-impoverished Shia majority. The Al Khalifa dynasty, 200 years into its political dominance of Bahrain, provides four-fifths of the cabinet and King Hamad can appoint and dismiss ministers at will. The current prime minister is the king’s uncle, the richest man in Bahrain, and has been in power since 1971.

Dissatisfaction with the Bahraini political status quo has simmered for decades, but, riding the Arab Spring tidal bore, has broken out into open protests since early 2011. The regime’s response has been brutal, with repressing and censorship spilling over into police kidnappings and torture. After last year’s Bahraini Grand Prix was called off as a result of civil unrest, the al-Khalifas were determined that the 2012 would go ahead, to show the world that its regime was stable.

This was the political storm into which Formula One cluelessly wandered this week. The rubber-burning playboys driving the cars joined the Bernie Ecclestone-grade string-pulling magnates to collectively stick their heads in the sand and banally endorse Bahrain’s oppressive political status quo, all the while seeming genuinely bemused as to what all the fuss was about.

For Ecclestone, this was just ‘another race in the calendar’. Meanwhile, the conscientious side of the international community protested, while a hunger striker withered in a Bahraini gaol and thousands of protestors took to the streets after 37-year old Salah Habib Abbas was shot by police during a previous demonstration.

Seeing Sebastian Vettel’s baby-faced delight on the winner’s podium once the race was won, was, frankly, slightly sickening, given the numbers of people who had bludgeoned by their own government to ensure it happened without a hitch.

Once upon a time, I’m afraid, I was one of the many slack-jawed males drawn to this quintessentially blokeish of wastes of time, dazzled by the sound and the smell and the shiny things moving really fast and the dumb ozone-frazzling excitement of it all. Thankfully, this was an affliction this didn’t last all that long, but the grotesque insularity F1 has shown this weekend has still made me profoundly ashamed to have ever sat and given it the time of day.