The drivers may be the stars of the show but when considering the fallout from the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix they should have no illusions as to where they stand in the eyes of the people running Formula One. A sport which now declares its moral stance beyond judgment will have no fear of putting pay day before the men delivering the show on track.
There was clear distaste from some in even being in Saudi Arabia, expressed once more by Lewis Hamilton, who was blunt in noting at the end of the weekend that he was: "just looking forward to getting out". That statement that will sit uncomfortably with the Saudi ambition of selling their state as a destination for the post-oil future.
F1 has done a deal to race in Saudi Arabia for 10 years worth a reported £50m a year and it has the state-owned oil company Aramco as a global partner. Yet while the arguments against grand prix racing in Saudi Arabia came thick and fast over the weekend, when F1's chief, Stefano Domenicali, was asked if the sport was putting money before morals, he dismissed it.
“No one can judge our morality, to be honest,” he said. “It is a matter of putting in place all the things that have to be considered. Where is the line? That is the question. Our position, and it will always be, is that we believe that what we’re doing will have a very positive impact in all the political situations for the best of our life and at all levels.”
Brazil got the 2014 World Cup and then 2016 Olympics. The biggest events you can get and it didn't do anything. There was no change at all
Few drivers, it seems, were feeling any positive impact this year. Hamilton’s stance is unsurprising given Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights record is well documented but when a missile strike hit just six miles from the circuit on the Friday before the race, F1 faced a rebellion. F1 and the team principals came to a swift agreement that all was well while the drivers in a separate meeting came to the opposite decision, that the race should be cancelled.
Their boycott was headed off only after a meeting with F1 and the team principals who put the case for their safety. Part of the argument used to placate them was believed to include an agreement that they would have a discussion about the race – including whether it should remain on the calendar.
Those talks will doubtless take place but F1, as the commercial rights holder, will make the decision on where they race and it is clear those decisions are not going to be influenced by the drivers.
Domenicali as good as spelled this out when when asked if there was a question mark over the future of the race in Saudi Arabia. “It is a matter of understanding the situation,” he said. “We are not blind, but we should not forget one thing: this country and the sport is taking a massive step forward. You cannot pretend to change a culture of more than a millennium in the blink of an eye.”
This is F1's most hackneyed refrain, that they can effect positive change. Yet their argument is not backed up by any evidence. Jonathan Grix, professor of sport policy and politics at the Manchester Metropolitan University, argues the Saudis are sportwashing and that F1 is complicit.
“Money is the driver and unfortunately it does override morals and principles,” he says. “That argument of bringing change has been used by many sports organisations. It was the same with Brazil when they gave them the 2014 World Cup and then 2016 Olympics. The biggest events you can get and it didn’t do anything. There was no change at all.”
F1 surely already has all the evidence it needs of effecting positive change in having held a race in Bahrain for a decade since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings were suppressed there. Yet they offer no examples of what benefits the sport has brought in that time, while other organisations argue the exact opposite is the case.
“The grim reality on the ground in Bahrain, after a decade of consecutive races, is one of increased institutionalised repression and an unprecedented use of the death penalty,” says Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. “Year after year, things are going from bad to worse. The truth is, as a morally corrupt enterprise, F1’s sole interest is driven by financial profits.”
F1 is far from the only guilty party in this rush for payment to paper over unpleasant truths as Grix notes of Fifa in awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. "This idea of the slow process of democratisation over time via the vehicle of sport, I have not seen any evidence of it, I don't believe it," he says. "It is the same argument about the kafala system in Qatar, any significant changes to the system remain to be seen."
Yet the demand to host prestigious events is so strong in many of these countries, that sports could wield their power to greater effect than merely hoping their presence will shine a spotlight on the issues. “They are in a position to make those kind of demands,” argues Grix. “We want to effect change, if we don’t see change then we are not going to hold an event like this in a country like yours.”
There is no sign of any such ultimatums being made. Instead every year F1 lends another veneer of legitimacy to states paying for exactly that. The drivers might not like it, they might not enjoy racing in a war zone, but for all the weight they carry it pales into insignificance to the avarice of a sport that has long since decided to follow the money, and morals be damned. – Guardian