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Bahrain Grand Prix: For Formula One racing, politics is always in pole position

AFP - Getty Images

Graffiti protesting the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix in the village of Barbar, west of Manama, on April 9.

Shanghai will be the scene of a showdown between the 12 teams that make up Formula One (F1) and the sport's supremo Bernie Ecclestone this week over whether a race should be held in Bahrain later this month. The Gulf state has been accused of human-rights violations during its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

It will be an appropriate backdrop, since the Chinese Grand Prix is one of the most political of races in one of the most political of sports, and gives the lie to those who have asserted F1 is only about racing.

The building of the $240 million Shanghai circuit was about putting Shanghai on the global map, one of several huge prestige projects under an ambitious local Communist party boss now serving time for corruption (as is the former chief of the track).

As for the sport, it has never really captured the imagination of the Chinese public and experts believe that, since the first race in China in 2004, it has lost pots of money. Last year, students were bussed in to fill seats.

'New Jersey comeback'
The expansion of F1 from its European home toward the likes of Singapore and New Delhi has been as much about image and prestige as about racing as countries associated themselves with the world's most glamorous sport. There will soon be a Grand Prix in Russia, following a deal signed personally by President Vladimir Putin.

And from next year there will be a race in New Jersey -- against the backdrop of Manhattan -- a race that has been personally championed by Governor Chris Christie, part of what he calls the "New Jersey comeback".

AFP - Getty Images

A Bahraini Shiite Muslim throws back a teargas canister fired by riot police
during clashes following a demonstration on Tuesday calling for the cancellation of the Grand Prix in Bahrain.

Yet Zayed R Alzayani, chairman of the Bahrain circuit, complains about being "dragged" into politics. "We are a social event, we are a sports event," he has insisted.

That would be true if he were presiding over a camel race in the dunes that surround his circuit. Sadly, that's not the case.

The construction of Bahrain's Sakhir circuit was a prestige "national objective", initiated and overseen by the Crown Prince, who is also the honorary president of the Bahrain Motor Federation. Bahrain also owns a chunk of McLaren, one of the top F1 teams. It is the Gulf state's biggest sporting event by a mile. Opponents see it as little more than a vanity event for the royal family.

Bahrain to citizens living abroad: Spy on countrymen, no protests permitted

Last year's race was cancelled after the authorities imposed martial law and launched a brutal crackdown on dissent. At least 50 people have been killed and hundreds jailed by special courts -- including athletes, coaches and sports officials.

Both sides want to make the most of the F1 weekend.

Deep sectarianism
The authorities are pushing for the April 22 race to go ahead as a demonstration of "unity" and a signal to the world that the situation inside the country is returning to normal.

In fact, deep sectarianism in Bahrain has worsened, and the mostly Shia opposition are already stepping up protests against the Sunni monarchy, knowing the eyes of the world will be on them.

AP, file

Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive of Formula One, with Fabiana Flosi, the vice-president of marketing for the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Two things could happen: a nasty flare-up in violence against the backdrop of the Grand Prix, or a virtual lock-down in which the authorities assert control. Although the circuit is out in the desert, and well beyond the drifting fumes of tear gas used by security forces, neither scenario would be ideal for the F1 elite and its glamorous groupies.

Last year, Mark Webber, one of the drivers at constructors' champion team Red Bull, made a principled stand against racing in Bahrain. He called events there a "tragedy", saying: "It’s probably not the best time to go."

This year he has been quiet, although his Red Bull teammate and world champion Sebastian Vettel is supporting the return to Bahrain.

Privately, many teams have deep reservations, and will be voicing those concerns to Ecclestone as they gather in Shanghai. A deadline of Saturday has been set for a decision, according to some reports.

Ecclestone has not always shown political sensitivity -- he once enthused about Hitler's ability to "get things done" -- but he has been sharp enough to survive at the top of F1 for a long time.

He has changed his position slightly on the Bahrain issue, saying that ultimately it is up to the teams.

They all know -- as does Bahrain -- that its ultimately all about image, and protecting the F1 brand will be the determining factor when they all sit down in Shanghai.

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