• Bahrain Grand Prix

F1 must shun Bahrain's blood money

Martin Williamson March 20, 2011
Bernie Ecclestone chats with Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa ... but how far will that friendship stretch? © Getty Images
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Officially the FIA is sticking by its May 1 deadline for organisers of the Bahrain Grand Prix to inform it if the race, postponed from March 13 because of the political situation in the kingdom, can take place later in the year.

While the FIA has little alternative to stick to its deadline - which many believed was a fudge in the first place - events in the last week make it all but impossible there will be a Bahrain Grand Prix in 2011, and perhaps even beyond then.

While the world's attention has been on Japan and Libya, the Bahrain royal family invited in the Saudi Arabian army to help the "security" of the state. Few believe the troops are little more than neighbourly muscle aimed at crushing a popular uprising against the ruling elite which, if successful, could threaten the stability of Saudi Arabia's own oppressive monarchy. The evidence of the first few days of occupation suggest a level of brutality hitherto unseen will be the order of the day.

Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, the heir to the Bahrain throne, is the man whose dream it was to bring Formula One to the state and who pumped in around $180 million to build the Bahrain International Circuit. Because the grand prix is very much associated with him, it made it likely as being a particular target for protests, one of the factors he agreed to its postponement.

He is a more than welcome guest of the great and the good of the sport and of politicians globally, and is also the credible face of the regime, repeatedly urging a national dialogue while it clamps down with increasing violence on its own people who are demanding the removal of the Al-Khalifa elite. Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa may be a moderate - some say he was caught unawares by the Saudi intervention - but he is inextricably linked to the unleashing of violence on his own people

Such is the strength of the democracy movement, the only way the uprising will be quelled is by increasing violence and repression. If the regime is successful in doing that then a veneer of normality will return to the state.

But even if that does happen, would it be right for the FIA to endorse the credibility of the regime in general and Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa in particular by returning so soon to Bahrain? The sight of him swanning around the circuit at Sakhir would be positively nauseating given the numbers killed and hurt in the last month.

Money talks, no more so than within Formula One. But there have to be limits, even for the likes of Bernie Ecclestone. Bahrain is a boring race in a state with an unpalatable, albeit wealthy, ruling elite in an already packed schedule.

If an alternative is needed, Ecclestone is constantly raising the hopes of wannabe venues with hints they could host a grand prix, so there are no shortages of candidates. Perhaps this time money ought not to be the one and only reason for bringing the Formula One roadshow to town.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA Martin Williamson, who grew up in the era of James Hunt, Niki Lauda and sideburns, became managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group in 2007 after spells with Sky Sports, Sportal and Cricinfo