Hosting F1 races in countries with dubious human rights records raises awkward questions – but they need to be asked
One of the most memorable press conferences I have attended in the past couple of years was held by a small pressure group called Article 19, and took place in a cramped lecture hall off High Holborn, London.
The organisation campaigns for press freedom in some of the world’s less tolerant places and more usually focuses on government policy and the law. On the occasion I visited, they were talking about Formula 1.
The reason was the decision to award the 2017 Grand Prix of Europe title – once a glittering accolade within the world of motor racing – to Azerbaijan, a country barely on nodding terms with the concept of free expression and with a penchant for locking up those who begged to differ. The race in Baku went ahead – and has been on the calendar ever since. In fact, this year’s street race was a particularly exciting one – won by Lewis Hamilton after a blown tyre resulted in an agonising retirement for leader Valtteri Bottas, and also heralded the arrival on the F1 radar of a young Monégasque called Charles Leclerc, who finished in sixth place to earn his first championship points.
But we digress.
On that afternoon in Holborn, journalists were presented with ordinary Azerbaijanis who recounted their brushes with the authorities and spoke eloquently about how holding a race in the capital would legitimise the regime and enable it to justify further repression of their citizens.
I remembered their words in the run-up to the seasonal finale held this year in Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately for the kingdom, its mask of respectability slipped just days before the race got underway, with the news that Matthew Hedges, a British academic, had been sentenced to life imprisonment for spying by an Abu Dhabi court. The day after the race he received a royal pardon. But the spectacle of British-based teams competing with nary a word of protest, in a country that had just arbitrarily imprisoned for life one their compatriots, took the gloss off the event.
The 2018 campaign also featured races in Bahrain, China and Russia, none of which are countries known for their tolerance. In fact, the latter, at the time of going to press, was further burnishing its gangster-state credentials by orchestrating a naval stand-off with Ukraine, while at the time of September’s Grand Prix in Sochi, Russia was being investigated for using biological weapons on British soil.
Before you turn the page, I should say I do not intend to use this column to list the problems and abuses of the power in the world – and yes, no doubt some people will argue that Donald Trump’s America has its faults too and Austin should have been cancelled. Nor do I intend to rehash the arguments about sport’s place in the political sphere.
But on a purely practical level, the warning signs for the sport are clear. Bernie Ecclestone famously sidestepped the question of F1’s morality or lack of it, back in 2013. “We don’t go anywhere to judge how a country is run,” he said. “I keep asking people, ‘What human rights?’ — I don’t know what they are.”
That line of obfuscation is surely no longer acceptable – if it ever was – with supporters of F1. In an age when fans have a voice via social media and companies – no matter how big – are only one Twitter storm away from being boycotted on a global scale, the risks of being seen to support unsavoury regimes are clear. Especially for a supposedly more enlightened (and, let’s face it, NASDAC-listed) owner such as Liberty Media.
In fact, for people who love our sport and want to see it thrive among a new generation of fans, it could be argued that the old-fashioned art of cleaning up its reputation and image is equally as important as launching hi-tech initiatives such as OTT TV streaming. Perhaps the teams themselves could wield their new-found power to force organisers to think again about where it does business.
There is historical precedent for this. Between 1986-1992 F1 stayed away from apartheid South Africa, although admittedly it was a little late to the party…
To be fair, it is not just Formula 1. In mid-December the so-called future of racing – the all-electric Formula E championship – kicks off its fifth season with a curtain-raiser in Saudi Arabia. Just weeks after the state admitted to killing a journalist in its own consulate in Turkey, the FE circus rolled into Riyadh, to declare to the world that there is nothing to see here. Perhaps it’s time Article 19 took another look at motor racing.
AFTER A LONG season on the road and in the air, our Grand Prix editor Mark Hughes can look forward to spending some time at home. Unlike this season’s WEC – which straddles the calendar year for its so-called super-season, and Formula E which only starts in December, Formula 1 – in common with most other forms of motor sport – takes a well-earned break over the festive season.
As well as wine, Mark will no doubt be mulling the changes that will take place in 2019, with only two teams keeping the same driver line-up and a new generation of exciting talent set to make an impact. This magazine, too, has exciting plans for 2019 and beyond. In the meantime, we’d like to wish all our readers a very happy Christmas and we look forward to seeing you back in the paddock in the new year.