The news that the last three races of 2021 will be played out on circuits in the Middle East has cast a shadow over this most glittering of Formula 1 seasons. Last month it was confirmed that Qatar will stage its first grand prix later in November, filling the slot left by the cancellation of the Australia GP. It will be followed by GPs in Saudi Arabia on December 5 and the season finale in Abu Dhabi on December 12.
The 2021 Qatar race is a precursor to 2023 when the emirate will start a 10-year run of hosting grands prix. Motor Sport has written before about the stain of sportswashing on F1. But the argument against hosting races in countries with appalling human rights records and where basic freedoms are denied citizens does not lose weight because it has been heard before. The danger for F1 is that hosting an increasing number of races in such counties normalises the practice to the extent that barely an eyebrow is raised. For a sport that is one of the few truly global sports and the lodestar for all forms of motor racing that is a dangerous place to be.
In fact, only muted dissent accompanied the Qatar announcement –a country which Amnesty International describes has having an “extremely troubling” record on, among other things, migrant workers. It urged F1 to “insist all contracts pertaining to this race contain stringent labour standards across all supply chains”. Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of F1, responded by insisting that F1 could be a force for good in the region.