THIS year’s Formula One season kicks off on Sunday in Bahrain, a venue that polarises opinion as the opening race for such a global sport.
Historically, F1 has started the year in countries with a history of motor racing — such as Australia, Brazil, South Africa or Argentina.
F1 are not doing their part to tackle sportswashing in the Gulf
Those form a stark contrast to Bahrain, which is a group of islands in the Persian Gulf with a population of just over 1.6million.
Perhaps we should not be so surprised to see it as race one, for somewhat incredibly this will be the fifth time that the Sakhir Circuit has held the prestigious curtain-raiser.
Even less so given it is rumoured the race — which had a record attendance of just 35,000 last year — pays F1 around £37.6m a season for the rights to host a grand prix.
Oh, and last year it agreed a contract with F1 that remains in place until 2036, albeit not always as the opening race.
The Bahrain GP follows pre-season testing that was also held at the same track — due to its warm and stable climate — and will be followed by a GP in Saudi Arabia.
And in the final part of the season, the calendar takes in Qatar and has Abu Dhabi as the finale.
It means this year there are four races in the Middle East, just two races (Japan and Singapore) in the rest of Asia and none in Africa.
Formula One is not alone in this shift. Boxing, football, tennis and golf have all been lured to the Middle East as sports are decentralised from their European roots.
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Of course, the money is a considerable factor — and with that comes the accusation of sportswashing.
Bahrain, for instance, has been accused by activist group Human Rights Watch of having a “dismal” record on the issue.
In 2013, Amnesty International claimed children, some as young as 13, were “blindfolded, beaten and tortured” as a result of protesting against the government.
Seven years later, a cross-party group of 30 UK parliamentarians urged F1 to “leverage Bahrain into respecting human rights”.
Also in 2020, Britain’s seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said: “We realise we’ve got to face and not ignore the human rights issues in the countries that we go to, not just 20 years, 30 years from now, but now.”
SINGING IN THE RAIN
The first Bahrain race was held in 2004 and I am not too sure what has been done to address those issues in the years since.
The situation is difficult for F1, as the owners Liberty Media tiptoe through the political minefield while also trying to run their business.
I understand that in Bahrain’s case there are a number of programmes aimed at encouraging girls into karting, while there are strict rules in each of the circuit’s contracts regarding breaches of human and labour rights.
But while the full details of those contracts remain private, it is difficult to see what else is being done.
You could argue that by being there in the first place, F1 is inadvertently keeping the pressure on those governments to address their human rights’ records.
However, the counter argument is that as these races in the Middle East become more frequent — and without evidence of F1 producing such legacy programmes — as time goes on, there is a real danger we could all become sportswashed.
Marc Marquez says teammate Pol Espargaro snubbed him ahead of surgery
MAKING HIS MARC
MOTOGP star Marc Marquez says he was snubbed by Pol Espargaro before undergoing surgery.
While Aleix Espargaro and Fabio Quartararo both reached out to wish Marquez luck for a career-saving op, there was nothing from his team-mate, who has since left the Honda team.
He said: “My team-mate Pol didn’t come to see me and he’s right next to me in the box. I mean, you don’t expect everyone to come. I didn’t expect Aleix.
“I know exactly who’s going to support me and who isn’t. Or who wishes the best for me and who doesn’t.
“Luckily there aren’t many who wish me the worst — but I bet there’s someone.”
E-ASY DOES IT
FORMULA E bosses should be patting themselves on the back after a stonking South African E-Prix.
Not only did the all-electric series pull off a thrilling debut in Cape Town in front of 25,000 fans but their Gen 3 car is delivering some great racing, too.
While Formula One’s model in 2022 was plagued by bouncing, the Gen 3 has led to some great overtaking manoeuvres.
Nissan’s Sacha Fenestraz set the fastest lap in FE history with an average speed of 96.304mph.
And the race was won after TAG Heuer Porsche’s Antonio Felix da Costa produced an outrageous pass on the final lap.
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