Mark Hughes: 'F1 can save itself from the relentless pursuit of cash'

“The F1 circus arrived in Saudi Arabia days after a mass state execution”

A missile attack on an oil depot just a few miles from the track on the Friday of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix illustrated the stark reality of taking the sport into a conflict zone. Even before that, things hadn’t got off to the most comfortable of starts, the circus arriving there just days after a mass state execution of 81 people, many for belonging to groups on the ‘wrong’ side of the Saudi-Yemen conflict and thereby classed by the state as terrorists.

It need hardly be stated that F1 chases the money and that the race in Jeddah is not the first to leave the sport open to accusations of avarice. It’s been complicated further by the commercial devastation inflicted upon F1 by the 2020 impact of the pandemic when $386m was lost and the FOM group had to be refinanced from within the parent group. The impetus to pay that back is considerable. The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix deal is believed to be worth at least £50m per race for the next 10 years.

As such, F1 would desperately like its following to consider the sport and politics as separate and that it is attending as a neutral. But any global sport has way too big a following for its own weight not to make its presence political. It’s by definition political regardless of whether it considers itself to be. This much has been understood for some time and FOM boss Stefano Domenicali is a highly intelligent man tasked by his employers with making all this work. So the messaging is subtly different. It’s now being suggested that F1 represents an enlightened set of values and that this will positively influence those regimes or societies it visits which do not currently adhere to those values.

“At the moment, Liberty sees money as a team sees downforce”

Talking at Jeddah, Domenicali said, “I think that the country has its own problem to grow, and sport, Formula 1 in general, has the duty to make sure that maximising attention on what is happening, is happening in the right direction.

“We don’t want to do politics, but for sure I do believe that the sport will help the country that wants to change its culture. It cannot happen from day to night, to be very important as a change.

“At F1 we need to do our duty to make sure something of such an importance can happen, and that’s why we stay there. That’s why we do believe that, working together, we can shape a better future in faster time.”

That’s surely an impossible line to tread. Who is F1 to say a country ‘wants to change its culture’? How does F1 decide if the human rights policy of a country is acceptable or not? It would seem that Saudi Arabia is clearly on the wrong side of a line. But where is that line? And what business does F1 have in deciding it? It doesn’t try to in reality of course. It just goes. The impossibility of calling that line is the implied justification for going to such places.

But it isn’t only F1 or other global sports which are caught in this awkward territory, but the western world in general. Relying so heavily on this region for energy supplies, it does business with regimes it officially considers abhorrent. It sells them weapons with which to fight enemies and profits enormously from doing so. It even uses Middle Eastern local wars to achieve its own geopolitical aims and in many cases in history has even started such conflicts behind the scenes. A lot of this is proxy war between superpowers over power and energy supplies and so the imperative isn’t to question human rights. Murderous regimes can be conveniently classified as just of a different culture. The realpolitik is very different to the narratives which are generally presented. F1 does not exist in a bubble but within that western power base.

The only resistance to the push of realpolitik over human rights abuses comes from institutions specifically highlighting it, such as the United Nations. As a commercial entity, Liberty Media, owners of F1’s commercial rights, has shown no interest in alignment with such bodies. That’s outside of its remit. But the sport’s governing body, the FIA, could surely do far worse than consider such an alignment.

A United Nations country-by-country index of human rights would allow Liberty to take itself out of the political element of choice of venues if the FIA included in its own charter a minimum required index number for a country to host a race. F1 could then adopt a “We would love to come, but until that number is improved beyond x, we cannot” stance.

At the moment, Liberty sees money just as a team sees downforce. It’s there to be had and it must therefore be had. A bit of criticism and turbulence from fans is just the equivalent of some porpoising for the
F1 teams. If the porpoising is the only way to access the downforce, then so be it. And it’s the same with the money the sport itself is forever chasing.

The top teams have recently been restricted in their insane chase of performance as it was recognised that was just the nature of a competitive entity and so they needed to be saved from themselves. But now perhaps that restriction needs to be put upon the sport itself.

Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation
Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark