[unable to retrieve full-text content]
Bernie Ecclestone may have to bow to public opinion and call off this month’s grand prix
Dictatorial, undemocratic, feudal in structure and intolerant of dissenting opinion â€“ there have always been fundamental concerns surrounding Formula One. Bahrain has got problems, too.
The Bahrain International Circuit is one of 20 venues for F1′s travelling and very noisy circus in 2012. There are worries about a number of the other countries included in the sport’s calendar as well.
Human rights in China, the home of this Sunday’s race in Shanghai, has long been a topic of heated debate, as have conditions in oil-rich Abu Dhabi, which will host the 18th event in November.
Then there is the next race in Texas two weeks later, the state with the worst record on capital punishment in the United States, while the areas that stage the Indian and South Korean races are infamous for their poverty and have attracted allegations of corruption.
Formula One can argue rather convincingly it is not the planet’s moral guardian. The Bahrain Grand Prix, however, is different. For this is the race that galvanised public opinion last year and it is doing so again. Forget the decibel-fest in Shanghai on Sunday, it is Bahrain the following week that everyone is talking about.
This race was cancelled last year and, unless there has been a fundamental improvement in the political situation, it seems likely that it will be called off again, albeit for safety rather than moral reasons.
But no one is openly talking about it. That is because those who govern the sport want to go to Bahrain with a sense of unity. Without that the whole enterprise is hopeless.
And even now teams are afraid of falling out with the FIA, the sport’s governing body, or Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights holder who will be 82 this year but who still holds the sport in his gnarled grip. It has been that way for almost four decades. Ecclestone may be out of date but he remains, even in old age, one of the most remarkable negotiators in all sport and there is probably not a single team in the paddock which is not indebted to him, both personally and collectively.
In recent years some team principals have muttered, privately, that it is time to move on. They concede that while Ecclestone did a great job is positioning the sport where it is now, through the 1980s and 1990s, he knows little of the modern world or perhaps how best to market the beast that he created.
But Formula One, self-obsessed and even solipsistic, continues to thrive, viewing figures are still going up and Ecclestone still manages to pull off unlikely deals, such as the current one that sees coverage shared between Sky Sports and the BBC.
It is, it seems, his special genius to appeal to the vanity of leaders in the Far East and Middle East, to persuade them they need to stage a Formula One grand prix and that they need to build yet another white elephant of a circuit in the desert even though few people will turn up to watch the show.
Formula One was, a few years ago, a mostly European experience. But this year 12 of the 20 races will be long-haul events â€“ or fly-aways as they are referred to in the paddock, placing even greater stress on already over-worked teams.
A year ago the old ringmaster Ecclestone’s days seemed numbered. Then, as he attempted to reschedule the cancelled Bahrain Grand Prix, there was speculation that Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate would bid to purchase F1 from CVC, the private equity firm.
Ecclestone also had to deal with an investigation by German authorities into alleged bribes in connection with the sport’s previous change of ownership, in 2005, although he only ever appeared as a witness in the case and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on his part.
Formula One has always had the ability to self-harm, as if deafened to the outside world by the awful din it creates. Bahrain, which first staged a race in 2004, is damaging the sport this year, just as it did last.
But Ecclestone will probably still be standing, even if he has to back down in the end to the clamour of public opinion.