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F1: Max Verstappen wins in Bahrain as controversy persists

March 5, 2023

As another Formula One season begins, so do the questions about race locations on the 2023 calendar. Human rights advocates believe F1 is not driving change, but is rather complicit in sports washing.

Max Verstappen of the Netherlands was the winner of the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix
Max Verstappen of the Netherlands was the winner of the Formula One Bahrain Grand PrixImage: Frank Augstein/AP/picture alliance

F1 season starts in Bahrain amid controversy

The new Formula One season began with the usual excitement around motorsport's biggest and boldest circus. Aston Martin were as fast as everyone thought they might be, Charles Leclerc's luck remains bad and Red Bull finishing one-two doesn't bode well for any potential challengers.

But beyond the red lights and worn grey tarmac of the Bahrain International Circuit, lies a storm of questions around F1's choice of race locations at a time when the sport's popularity continues to grow.

This season, Formula One will hold its biggest-ever schedule, with 23 races on the calendar. With traditional tracks such as Monaco coming under fire for their lack of excitement on race day, new races are making headlines.

Teams will race in Las Vegas, US for the first time in one of three visits to America and after Bahrain will also visit Saudia Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Ahead of the season opener in Bahrain, international NGO Human Rights Watch called on Formula One to implement a human rights policy, saying without it the sport was not driving real change but rather complicit in sports washing. The NGO went on to say that Bahrain's authorities have a long track record of serious human rights abuses, including unfair parliamentary elections and trials.

Afterwards, Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, head of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), revealed that Bahrain’s police arrested four individuals for staging a protest outside the Grand Prix.

Troubled history

As far back as 2012, protesters in the country demanded reform and for the cancellation of the race. At the time, the then head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights Maryam al-Khawaja told DW: "The crackdown has become harsher because of F1, so in part we're blaming them for the injuries and arrests... We received reports that young boys were arrested and tortured in prison, some as young as 17. So we're definitely putting it on the shoulders of Ecclestone and F1."

Protests were just as intense in the country in 2013 and in 2015, F1 said it would "strengthen" its human rights commitment ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

After the successful takeover of Premier League club Newcastle by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) in late 2021, human rights abuses at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and most recently, Premier League club Manchester United the subject of a bid from Qatari elite Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, another major sport deepening their partnership with the Middle East is a sign of the times.

Formula One has had connections with the Middle East as far back as 1978 when airline Saudia sponsored Williams, but the first race in the region was in Bahrain in 2004. In 2020, Saudi oil giant Aramco announced a global partnership with Formula One, who also sponsors the Aston Martin team.

Not about the money

Four races in the region is a big statement though, but Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali recently told "The Guardian"  the sport's remarkable strength meant it was not just following the money because they could "take it elsewhere because of the demand." The Italian added that he believes the sport is able to effect more change by being in these countries rather than avoiding them.

Criticism will continue throughout the season, perhaps even from the pit lane. Despite an FIA (International Automobile Federation) directive in December 2022, that said drivers were banned from making "political statements", most drivers said they would be ignoring the sport's pursuit of political neutrality.

Lewis Hamilton has repeatedly said he feels F1 has a responsibility to raise awareness of issues in the countries it visits. In November 2021, Hamilton said ahead of that season's race in Qatar: "These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue... If we are coming to these places, we need to be raising the profile of the situation."

In Bahrain this season, Hamilton wore a helmet decorated with a rainbow in both practice and the race in support of the LGBTQ community in the region.

And so another F1 season begins, but beyond the positions and podiums, lies a backdrop that the sport must contend with.

Edited by: Jenipher Camino Gonzalez