Skip to main content

Formula One's return to Bahrain meets mixed response

By Fred Pleitgen and Sarah Holt, CNN
April 18, 2013 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
There have been protests against Formula One's arrival in Bahrain as the race returned in 2013. Some protesters, pictured here on April 16, wanted F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone to cancel the race. There have been protests against Formula One's arrival in Bahrain as the race returned in 2013. Some protesters, pictured here on April 16, wanted F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone to cancel the race.
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
F1 makes uncertain Bahrain return
  • Formula One returns to Bahrain amid anti-government protests
  • FIA president Jean Todt says the sport's return to Bahrain can have a "healing effect"
  • Some protesters say the race is a chance to raise awareness of the country's political plight
  • Other human rights groups have called for the race to be canceled

(CNN) -- Formula One has returned to Bahrain amid conflicting views about the sport's place in a country where political tensions are running high.

The head of the sport's governing body the FIA, Jean Todt, insists the sport coming to Bahrain can be a force for good.

But that view is not shared by anti-government protesters, who recently staged a drum march in the village outside Bahrain's capital Manama to urge F1 not to come under the current circumstances.

Many issues in the kingdom remain unresolved after an uprising in 2011 where the majority Shiite population demanded more rights from the rulers who belong to the minority Sunni sect.

Those protests were violently crushed by Bahrain's security forces with troops from Saudi Arabia coming in to support the government.

In the aftermath of the protests the government promised reform including a special unit set up to investigate claims of rights abuses but critics say little has changed, so the opposition continues to do battle.

The former team principal of F1's famous Ferrari marque, Todt is not attending the Bahrain Grand Prix, though officials have played down the significance of his absence, with a spokesman reportedly sayng the event was never on his schedule.

Formula One not so welcomed in Bahrain

Todt recently drew criticism, accused of failing to voice his views on why F1 is continuing to race in the volatile Gulf Kingdom.

2012: A revolution deferred in Bahrain

In 2011 the race was canceled because of ongoing civil unrest but was reinstated last season.

The FIA president went some way to addressing that criticism this week by sending a letter to an umbrella group of human rights activists in Bahrain.

In the letter, seen by news agency Reuters, Todt explained: "Sport, and the F1 Grand Prix, can have a positive and healing effect in situation where conflict, social unrest and tensions are causing distress."

Protesters view the Bahrain GP as a rare opportunity to raise awareness of the country's political situation for a global audience.

"The media doesn't cover the demonstrations like this revolution which is part of the Arab Spring," Sayed Yousif Al-Mahfdah from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told CNN.

"This is why we tell them come over to the Formula One race and come see the women and the men marching in the streets demanding democracy and human rights."

Bahrain maintains that has worked to resolve political differences, and the government argues the race will bring benefits to many Bahrainis.

"F1 brings significant benefits to everyone in Bahrain, especially economically," the government said in a statement.

"Bahrain upholds the right to peaceful protest. It is a country made up of many communities with different views on its development.

"This is why it has launched a dialogue between all political groups to address political issues in a manner that will ensure the country develops in a sustainable way.

"It should be noted that in some cases protests encouraged by extreme opposition groups result in deliberate and targeted violence.

"Only in these case do security forces respond and they do so while exercising appropriate restraint. Some unfortunately believe that continued unrest on the streets affords them a political advantage, when it results in greater divisions between communities in Bahrain. Violence can never be tolerated."

However, a number of leading human rights organizations argue the sport provides credibility to a government accused of human rights abuses.

Read more: Is Bahrain serious about reform?

"Many people in Bahrain no longer see Formula One as a sport, but as an organization which supports a repressive regime," said a protest group comprised of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the Bahrain Press Association, the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

This week a group British MPs wrote letter to F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone urging him to call off the grand prix.

Ecclestone has voiced sympathy for the protesters but the race is still scheduled to go ahead.

When F1 returned to Bahrain in 2012, the race weekend was undisturbed although two members of the Force India team returned to the UK after being caught up in petrol bomb attacks on their journey from the Sakhir circuit.

Part of complete coverage on
Track the buzz of the 2014 Formula One season, race by race, with all the latest social reaction from motorsport experts.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
Too weak. Can't handle the pressure. Susie Wolff has heard it all -- but she is determined to become the first female F1 driver in 20 years.
CNN's Amanda Davies visits the headquarters of Mercedes, the dominant team in Formula One this season.
March 15, 2014 -- Updated 0108 GMT (0908 HKT)
The big winners of this Formula One season could be road drivers rather than F1 racers, according to one former world champion.
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
The Williams team welcomes the biggest rule changes to Formula One cars for a generation.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1916 GMT (0316 HKT)
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton sums up the dawn of a new Formula One era in three juicy words -- weird, mind-blowing and challenging.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Formula One is taking another step in its techno evolution this season, which could be more unpredictable than it has been for a long time.
February 24, 2014 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
Jann Mardenborough on the similarities and differences between driving a race on a video game and driving a real F1 car.
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 1226 GMT (2026 HKT)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin watches the men's cross-country 4 x 10km relay event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on February 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
How Russian president Vladimir Putin helped turn a muddy hole in the ground into a $400 million futuristic grand prix track in Sochi.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Formula One racing director Bernie Ecclestone talk during a ceremony of signing of an agreement to bring Formula One racing to Sochi for a Grand Prix Russia to be held in 2014, the same year the Black Sea resort hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi on October 14, 2010. Putin, whose backing was crucial in Sochi winning the right to host the Games, is due in the city on Thursday to sign an agreement for work to begin on the construction of a new 200 million dollar circuit. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Vilified by the the international community for his government's attitude on gay rights, Russian president Vladimir Putin has found an ally.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1613 GMT (0013 HKT)
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel is bidding for a fifth consecutive drivers' championship in 2014.
He is Formula One's undisputed No. 1, and next season Sebastian Vettel will have proof of that fact emblazoned on his Red Bull.
December 4, 2013 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
A new era of F1 looms large on the horizon in 2014, but what do the new rules mean for how we watch the sport? Get up to speed here.
October 17, 2013 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Explore our interactive of one of F1's most important and complicated pieces of kit.