The Formula One season will be decided by three controversial races in the middle east. The first is in Qatar, a country champion Lewis Hamilton said is "deemed one of the worst" in the region on human rights issues.
After several years of title processions, Formula One now has the kind of contest that draws the eyes of even people with only a passing interest in motor sports. Young tearaway pretender Max Verstappen leads seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton by just 14 points, with 78 still available after a brilliant drive from Hamilton last time out.
But, as well as increased viewing figures, money and engagement, those new sets of eyes increase the scrutiny on the sport, with the racing roadshow set to visit Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi to round off the season. All three countries are consistently criticized for their human rights records and desire to launder their reputations through sports.
Both of the next two races, in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are making their debuts on the F1 calendar, which also features races in Bahrain and Azerbaijan.
"We’re aware there are issues in these places that we’re going to," Hamilton said ahead of Sunday's race. "But of course [Qatar] seems to be deemed as one of the worst in this part of the world. As sports go to these places, they are duty bound to raise awareness for these issues. 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. One person can only make a certain amount of small difference, but collectively we can have a bigger impact. Do I wish that more sportsmen and women spoke out on these issues? Yes."
Spotlight shines bright
Hamilton has previously taken F1 to task over the race in Bahrain, among others, and is a prominent supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. With the football World Cup in Qatar a year away, the spotlight is intensifying on the Gulf nation, with national teams highlighting human rights issues and fans, media and human rights organizations ramping up the pressure.
But, days before Hamilton spoke out, F1 boss Stefano Domenicali told the BBC that such scrutiny"will be beneficial for the will and the wishes of change that these countries are showing" in an argument familiar to followers of the football world.
"It doesn't mean everything is perfect, but for sure what we are doing and what we are signing off is headed in the right direction," Domenicali said, adding that F1 had appointed independent auditors to ensure that workers' rights were observed during the building of the new track in Saudi Arabia.
Organizers of the grand prix have towed a similar line, with Qatar saying the race will "support economic diversification, encourage local participation in sport and serve as a catalyst to accelerate reforms." Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia hope to "leverage the power of F1 to empower all men and women in the Kingdom."
Amnesty International are not so sure: "In using the glamour and razzmatazz of F1 to try to distract attention from human rights abuses, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will hope there's little to no discussion of human rights issues around these races — something that must not be allowed to happen," reads their statement on the matter.
Hamilton's words may have eased such concerns slightly, though it is unclear whether other drivers, and sportspeople more generally, will be willing to offer their views. Come Sunday, the drama of the closest title battle in years will inevitably take center stage. But Hamilton, and many others, believe that the backdrop cannot be ignored.
Qatar World Cup set to be one of most controversial