F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone has brushed off calls to take a stand against repression in Azerbaijan. He said the race series was "absolutely" comfortable with Baku hosting its inaugural Grand Prix.
Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone on Thursday dismissed worries about Azerbaijan's rights record ahead of the European Grand Prix in Baku this weekend. Speaking to the press, the 85-year-old magnate said he didn't see a problem with the event being hosted by a country which has received criticism for human rights abuses.
"The minute people tell me what human rights are, you can look at how, why and when it applies. Does anyone know what human rights are?" he asked the reporters.
In the run-up to Baku presenting the Grand Prix for the first time, several rights groups, including Amnesty International, urged the commercial face of F1 to take a stance on Azerbaijan's crackdown on free speech and the press.
"Yes, we are taking it seriously, of course," said Ecclestone. "We have been in correspondence and we have assurance from here that they are looking into these things."
When asked if he could stage the race in such a country with a clear conscience, Ecclestone replied: "Absolutely. One hundred percent."
Sport for Rights, an organization seeking to draw attention to the rights situation in Azerbaijan, has said that at least four journalists have died in custody since 2005. When told that members of the press have been jailed for criticizing the government of President Ilham Aliyev, Ecclestone responded: "So they should... but, it depends what they write."
In the annual World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Azerbaijan comes in 163rd of 180 countries, sandwiched between Libya and Bahrain, which has hosted an F1 race each year since 2004 - except for the year of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 when it was first delayed, and then canceled.
Ecclestone said that if Formula One only hosted races in countries without a trace of alleged corruption, there would not be many places left.
F1's ceaseless search for 'sanctioning fees'
Formula One's complex business model draws in revenue from multiple sources, but in recent years, television rights fees have been overtaken as a share of the total income by so-called "sanctioning fees."
Put simply, these are fees - the size of which varies from place to place - paid by a country, government or racetrack owner in order to host an F1 race. The idea is that venues then earn their money back via ticket sales. Or, in the case of several race hosts, governments are willing to accept a loss in exchange for the profile of having the F1 circus come to town.
F1's inaugural Russian Grand Prix took place at the height of the Ukraine conflict in 2014, with Putin on hand
Since 2004, new Formula One races have popped up in countries including Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, China, Singapore, and now Azerbaijan. Races in Turkey and India have been and gone in that period, too. With 21 races scheduled, the 2016 season is set to be the longest in the sport's history, prompting complaints from some teams that the calendar is too demanding.
More "traditional" race venues that have also returned to the calendar in recent years after absences are the US, Mexico and Austria.
The precise income generated from sanctioning fees are not in the public domain, but Russia, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and now Azerbaijan are thought to pay the most, in the region of $50 million (45 million euros), for their races.
The Baku race this weekend will take place a street circuit running around the historic city center. Measuring nearly four miles, it is the second-longest circuit on the Formula One calendar, after Spa Francorchamps in Belgium.
es/msh (AFP, AP)