As drivers and teams prepare to travel to the Kingdom of Bahrain for the fourth race of the season, protests in the capital Manama reflect a political situation that is far from resolved. And it isn’t the first time Formula 1 has courted international condemnation in order to keep its racing schedule.
Bahrain’s largest opposition political party, Al-Wefaq, plans a week of anti-government protests under the slogan “steadfastness and challenge”. Separately, there have been explicit threats on popular social networks such as Facebookand Twitter.
Although no plans have emerged to demonstrate in the immediate vicinity of the track, downtown Manama is only 12 miles away. It is also where most F1 fans will be staying.
Protestors admit F1’s audience, which numbers in the hundreds of millions, is the perfect vehicle to advertise their problems to the world. But the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile(FIA), the sport’s governing body, still says it “is satisfied that all the proper security measures are in place”. It also pointed to a completed fact-finding mission involving various stakeholders, where a consensus was found that the race should be held.
Bahrain’s cabinet welcomed the decision in a statement on Sunday, saying it reflected “confidence in the country’s security and stability”. But Human Rights Watch argued the move was part of a “major” public relations campaign.
“The FIA has played into the government’s narrative to gloss over Bahrain’s continuing human rights crisis,” Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Drivers themselves have largely dodged questions as to whether they have any misgivings. Some teams, such as Red Bull Racing, have indicated that additional security precautionswill be taken.
The cancellation of last year’s contest is believed to have cost the country $500 million in revenues, a substantial chunk of Bahrain’s $26 billion annual economic output.
It’s not the first time that political controversy has led to a cancellation. Political instability in Argentina forced organizers to shut down the country’s Grand Prix from 1961 onwards. But Formula 1 returned a decade later amid violent state-backed repression.
International pressure also played a role in 1985. In protest against policies of racial segregation under apartheid, FIA’s then-President Jean-Marie Balestre announced that there would not be a return to the track at the South-African track of Kyalami.
The Grand Prix had been held on a regular basis since 1960, and saw many of F1’s greatest drivers, such as Jim Clark and Alain Prost, take the top spot on the podium.
Some controversy also surrounded the Turkish Grand Prix in 2006, when Mehmet Ali Talat presented the winner’s trophy as the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The country is only recognized by Turkey, and the FIA responded with a $2.5 million penalty for politicizing the event.
Bahrain does enjoy the backing of the powerful Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC), and is also home to the US Fifth Fleet. The question remains as to whether the event will prove a unifying force as authorities hope, or merely serve to exacerbate existing divisions at great economic and reputational cost.
Yousef Gamal El-Din is CNBC's Middle East Correspondent and contributes to the channel’s flagship shows, as well as analysis for CNBC.com.
Stay in touch with him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/youseftv @youseftv