Why the Bahrain Grand Prix must be called off

A year on from Formula One's cancellation of the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix and the sport finds itself in much the same position.

A year ago Formula One dilly-dallied and prevaricated before finally coming to the inevitable conclusion that the Bahrain Grand Prix should be postponed until later in the season, then ultimately cancelled, in the wake of the political tensions and violence in the tiny island kingdom.

A year on the sport finds itself in much the same position, except that time is far shorter and, arguably, the situation more critical. As I write, there are less than 14 days until the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix and fewer still until the Formula One travelling circus arrives, virtually en masse, from Shanghai where this weekend the Chinese Grand Prix takes place.

With an apparent increase in the violence and further disturbance – although an accurate picture is virtually impossible to piece together from a distance – in and around Bahrain as well as the increasing sense that the Grand Prix, by some distance Bahrain’s biggest international event, has been politicised and will become a flashpoint, there is an increasing clamour for Formula One to cancel the event for a second successive year on safety grounds.

Bernie Ecclestone, who signed the contract with the Bahrainis to host a Grand Prix, and the president of world motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, Jean Todt are both reportedly travelling to Shanghai this weekend to meet with teams and, presumably, determine a course of action. Both men and their organisations have spent the last few months insisting that the race will – and should – go ahead.

There has been a lack of clarity, a lack of coherence, which has done Formula One no favours at all in the wider world

The prevarication might be based on good intentions and the need to properly examine what is going on in Bahrain and how that would affect the event, but it has totally missed the mark when it comes to communicating that process. There has been a lack of clarity, a lack of coherence, which has done Formula One no favours at all in the wider world.

Contrast that with the lower-profile, but very clear, way in which IMG flagged up Bahrain’s inaugural pro-celebrity golf tournament, which takes place this weekend. Even if the political situation in Bahrain was disingenuously ignored and players and celebrities alike will presumably be receiving the Bahraini dollar to attend and play, it was at least clear communication, something that has been lacking in recent times from Formula One’s powerbrokers. It is at least partly for that reason that Formula One is once again bearing the brunt of fierce criticism for what looks like indecision over whether to hold the race.

Worse still, despite Bernie Ecclestone’s denial to The Times newspaper on Monday, the perception rightly or wrongly is that there is a commercial factor to the decision: the suggestion that nobody wants to be the first to blink and that Formula One and the FIA might be waiting for Bahrain to call off its event, as it did last year, is a pretty unpalatable one even for a sport fuelled by dollars.

Arguments in favour of pushing ahead with a Bahrain Grand Prix this year are becoming less vehement with every passing day. Even those critical of Formula One races being staged in countries like China, given that country’s human rights record, would surely concede that there is a wider issue at this point; namely the apparently volatile situation on the ground and the politicisation of the Grand Prix by all sides.

What does Formula One stand to gain from taking the risk?

Ultimately it comes down to this: what does Formula One stand to gain from taking the risk to either the safety of its travelling band or that the Grand Prix will be used as an international advert for a cause, with all the chilling possibilities that could result?

Bahrain has often been a warm, hospitable Grand Prix host – and the staff at the Bahrain International Circuit are, in my experience, eager to help and boundlessly enthusiastic about their Formula One race – but if the overarching ambition for the tiny island to put itself on the map through Formula One was to present itself as a progressive, developing country open for business and ready to welcome the world then this year’s event has already failed before a car even leaves the pit-lane. It is the downside of using a Grand Prix, or indeed any sporting event, as a national brand-builder.

Bahrain’s original rationale for hosting a Formula One race, to bring tourism, business and investment to the kingdom, is ultimately the reason why it cannot host its Grand Prix this year.

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