When the final decision came on the fate of the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix, it was certainly the right one. And although it may have been reached for all the wrong reasons, including logistical inconvenience and sheer embarrassment, it yielded an unexpected bonus: a couple of weeks in which the world could take a close look at the tangled moral universe of Formula One.
The episode concluded with seeming chaos at the highest level, where Jean Todt, president of the FIA, the world governing body, was outflanked by Bernie Ecclestone, representing the holders of Formula One’s commercial rights, whose sudden declaration that the race could not take place once again demonstrated his mastery of the ideological handbrake turn.
The ultimate decision to cancel the reinstatement had nothing to do with Formula One’s distress over the deaths of more than 30 Bahrainis, the alleged arrests of many circuit employees because they happened to be of the wrong Islamic denomination, or the detaining of doctors and nurses who treated those injured in the protests and were thus deemed to have acted against the government’s interests.
The sport is not devoid of people whose moral compasses function perfectly adequately, but — with the sole exception of the admirable Mark Webber — they appear to have no voice.
The affair demonstrated how conflicts of interest are a way of life in Formula One. When the outbreak of civil unrest in mid-February forced the immediate evacuation from Bahrain of the cars and personnel of the GP2 series, the next rung down from Formula One, among the teams was an outfit owned by the kingdom’s Crown Prince in partnership with Jean Todt’s son. When the future of the Formula One race came under threat, and the views of the teams became part of the debate, it was remembered that more than 40% of the McLaren team is owned by the Bahraini royal family’s sovereign wealth fund.
The race has been cancelled but it is on the calendar for next year. Formula One, as Ecclestone always says, does not do politics. Yet the people running the sport seemed quite content, once they had reinstated the race on the flimsiest of grounds, to stand by and allow the rulers of Bahrain to claim that it would help them unite their divided country - in effect, serving a political purpose - until they were shamed into reversing their stance.
They will be crossing their fingers in the hope of peace in Bahrain by next spring. And the next time a big decision comes his way, Todt will need to show a surer grasp of the principles of leadership.