Formula 1 decided today to reschedule the Bahrain Grand Prix for October. As the news was announced, Bahraini police fired rubber bullets at protestors after a funeral for a demonstrator killed and tortured in prison. New lows in marketing ahead.
The crackdown by the authoritarian regime in the tiny island nation has been among the most brutal faced among protestors against dictators in the Middle East, with at least 30 people killed, and scores injured or tortured in custody. Bahrain only lifted martial law two days ago, which had been in place since a violent March crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators. (According to one detainee, up to a quarter of the workers at Bahrain's grand prix park have been beaten or fired.)
After postponing the race set for February, the FIA World Motor Sport Council had been called on to simply cancel the race, from both outside activists and people within the sport. Red Bull driver Mark Webber put out a Twitter message yesterday, saying "when people in a country are being hurt, the issues are bigger than sport."
Today, the council sided with Bahrain government's request to reset the race for Oct. 30, with personal thanks to F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone for an event that should bring the country $500 million:
"As a country we have faced a difficult time, but stability has returned," said Zayed R. Alzayani, chairman of Bahrain International Circuit, which hosts the race. "Collectively, we are in the process of addressing issues of national and international concern, and learning lessons from the recent past," he added.
But Formula 1 isn't just about racing; its about marketing for dozens of corporations. Already one online protest has gathered nearly 350,000 signatures calling on Red Bull to hold its team back; the team itself issued a content-free statement today acknowledging the decision. While some automakers may be accustomed to dealing with brutal dictators, many F1 sponsors will not be so sanguine about having their brands tied to the wrong side of history.
Besides, as some companies have found out, it's better to work for the protestors rather than against them. Maybe there are other ways besides getting Sebastian Vettel around a track for Red Bull to show how it gives people wings.