Top teams bankrolled by Middle East backers tread carefully in row over Bahrain GP
As Formula One teams object to holding a race in Bahrain, some need to appease their Middle East backers.
The sport’s ruling body Federation Internationale de l’Automobile rescheduled the event last week after it was cancelled in March because of a government crackdown on civil unrest. Teams have objected to the increased workload on staff and because of security concerns and complaints by human rights groups. Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone told the British Broadcasting Corp yesterday the October 30 race “isn’t on” if teams don’t want to go.
Daimler AG’s Mercedes and Red Bull are among five of twelve teams part-owned or supported by governments or sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf region. The series, owned by CVC Capital Partners Ltd, got $175.9m from trackside advertising and hosting fees from Bahrain and Abu Dhabi races last year, according to industry monitor Formula Money.
Formula One teams “will do as much damage limitation as possible,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, said. “If they pull out, they will use a logistical or security pretext. We’re not going to see them talk about human rights.”
The race, set to start the season, was first suspended by Bahraini Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa. The Paris- based FIA reinstated it after a 36-hour fact-finding mission found protests had subsided and saying the event “reflects the spirit of reconciliation in Bahrain.” Human Rights Watch spokesman Joe Stork called the decision “highly questionable” because there remains evidence of repression. Avaaz, an online campaign group, collected almost 450,000 signatures backing the cancellation of the race.
Calls seeking comment from Bahrain authorities were referred to Bahrain International Circuit spokesman Mohammed Al Awadhi, who didn’t immediately answer emailed questions.
The Mercedes team is part-owned by Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments, which also sponsors Red Bull GmbH’s second team, Toro Rosso, through its Falcon Private Bank Ltd unit. McLaren is part-owned by Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Co and Williams has had a partnership with Qatar’s government to develop automotive technology since 2009. Ferrari advertises Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World theme park on its cars.
The Gulf states bankroll Formula One to attract investment and tourism to their region and Bahrain had hoped that staging the race in October “would be a sign that it is safe to do business in Bahrain again,” Hamid said.
“The other states will be keen to show solidarity with Bahrain in the face of external pressure” to protect themselves, said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at UK foreign think tank Chatham House. They “won’t be pleased” if Formula One sets a precedent by withdrawing from Bahrain on human rights grounds, Kinninmont added.
Reinstating the Bahrain race would mean extending the schedule into December for the first time since 1963. Mercedes team manager Ross Brawn told reporters last month that was “totally unacceptable” because staff already spend much of the eight-month season away from their families.
The teams sent a joint letter to the FIA to “privately express their views,” an official at the Geneva-based Formula One Teams Association, said by telephone, declining to discuss what it said. Officials from Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren and Williams declined to comment.
“Formula One will want to play along” with Bahrain as much as possible, Hamid said. Teams “stand to lose a lot if they are seen to be on the wrong side of the Gulf states."
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