Last year’s race in Bahrain was shadowed by a large number of protests and small clashes with authorities. In some cases, teams even had close calls with the protesters. 2013 looks to be repeating this social strife and already there have been calls to protest the race and security is being bolstered.
Protesting international sporting events is nothing new, especially not for Formula 1. What a better way to gain visibility for your cause than to stir up commotion at an event attended by thousands and watched by millions.
The protests in Bahrain were fairly violent last year and despite calls to boycott the race from fans and even Mark Webber, figures like Bernie Ecclestone continue to put the event on.
In my own experience last year, I witnessed firsthand the student protests in Montreal ahead if the Canadian Grand Prix. Protesters were again using the race to gain visibility for their cause. The protesters were quite numerous and active, but the police response was incredible. As an American I have to say I was astonished at the police presence the province put forward to prevent disruption to the race. Successfully I might add.
I wondered if it was similar to Bahrain, with an obvious difference being the cause the protesters were fighting for. And based on the news, the strength of the response was different. I was careful, I didn’t want to tangle with Canadian riot police in my vacation.
The big question which worries people is if the race is safe with protests occurring at the same time? With the recent bombing of the Boston Marathon the only answer I can offer is that nowhere is going to truly be safe, ever, but we can only worry about what we do control.
Personally I think Bahrain is a little volatile to be racing in right now. And it’s tricky because social upheaval can last a long time. Then again the track in Bahrain is honestly boring anyway. It’s like Hermann Tilke ran out of ideas and copy-pasted some of his favorite track components.
One consideration is that the race really loses nothing by canceling other than perhaps a contract severance fee. The protesters gain momentum through a small victory and perhaps something changes. Another is that the race shouldn’t cancel because of unrest. But when each year is marred by protests, maybe it is time to just not take the risk for a while. Let things settle. Safety should always come first. The Boston Marathon bombing occurred in a calm city with no protests, and I think if you put a race in an area that is not calm, you amplify that risk significantly.
It is a balancing act, and I don’t think it would get much attention except for people like Ecclestone seem really to think it is all fine. Bernie probably knows better than me I guess. Additionally, authorities in Bahrain have acted like nothing is wrong in the past while independent media sources have reported a heavy crackdown. I don’t think that is healthy.
The race is on this year, and really we shouldn’t worry. But it is important to take regional unrest into consideration not just for F1, but all international sporting events.