FIA statutes, article 1:
The FIA shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.
This is a principle that the FIA takes seriously. We know this, because the organisers of the Turkish Grand Prix got themselves into very hot water in 2006 after using the podium ceremony for political reasons. The race organisers were fined, and the circuit quietly saw out its contract.
Similarly in 1997, the organisers of the European Grand Prix, held at Jerez in Spain, were also found at fault after the mayor of Jerez, Pedro Pacheco, “disrupted the podium ceremony”. The then President of the FIA, Max Mosley, is said to have screamed at the Mayor, promising that Jerez would never hold an F1 race again. It hasn’t.
But the business model of F1 has meant that politicised events are increasingly inevitable. Almost every race in the F1 calendar (the British Grand Prix is a notable exception) receives some form of government backing. Even the new grands prix in the USA are receiving state help.
At moderate levels, this normally isn’t a problem. But Bernie Ecclestone’s pursuit of cash has led to him sealing deals with governments that are explicitly looking for a global platform and see Formula 1 as the perfect tool to provide it.
No prizes for guessing why countries such as Bahrain and China are keen to hold a grand prix. Some of them will be quite open about it: they want to put their countries on the map. Being part of one of the most popular sports in the world helps these countries gain legitimacy on the global stage.
Bernie Eccelestone’s approach is to chase the highest fees he can get. This has meant moving the sport further away from its core in Europe, particularly in the past 15 years. More and more races are taking place in Asia. The calendar has undergone significant evolution.
Of course, an increased spread of races across the globe is to be applauded. F1 is supposed to be a World Championship, after all.
But just now the balance just isn’t there. One race takes place in Australia. Eight take place in Europe. Two take place in North America. One takes place in South America. Eight take place in Asia. No races take place in Africa.
Among the newer races, a number have run into difficulties related to politics. I have already mentioned the problem in Turkey.
In Europe, the new Valencia Street Circuit was closely linked to Partido Popular, a political party. A news story posted on Formula1.com noted: “The deal is conditional on [Francisco] Camps winning local elections next month.” Since Francisco Camps left office last year, there have been murmurings that the Valencia Street Circuit will scale back its involvement in F1.
Malaysia and South Korea have similarly threatened to scale back their races after power changed hands in government.
Many of the newer races in the calendar are inherently political, either because they are vanity projects of local politicians, or global propaganda tools.
The tension between Bernie Ecclestone’s commercial needs, and the desire of the FIA to be apolitical, has been increasing for some time. This weekend in Bahrain, that tension is reaching breaking point.