Damon Hill appears to have changed his stance on the Bahrain Grand Prix's continued presence on the F1 schedule, but admits that this weekend's controversial fourth round raises a number of questions about the sport's morals.
The 1996 world champion, who does not appear to be in Bahrain in his role as part of the Sky Sports F1
commentary team, has twice before expressed a view on whether the sport should grace the Gulf nation. Back in January 2012
, the former BRDC chairman said that he was 'in favour of the return of the Bahrain Grand Prix', despite the fact that civil unrest continued as the result of pro-democracy campaigns. Then, earlier this month
, he appeared to have a change of heart, urging the FIA to reconsider the race's place on the schedule amid reports of escalated disturbances.
On the very eve of the race, however, Hill appears to have settled on an opinion, suggesting that it is right for the race to go ahead, but that F1 needs to examine its motives for courting controversy. Writing in a personal blog for Britain's Guardian
newspaper, the former Brabham, Williams, Arrows and Jordan pilot rumbled through thoughts on various issues affecting the sport, before ultimately questioning whether the Bahrain question had been handled properly.
"F1 is not everyone's idea of a Sunday well spent," he began, "I'm sure there are those who would love to escape from F1 forever. But, because it is a global sport with 350 million viewers for 20 of the 52 weekends of the year, it is difficult to ignore.
"This is especially so when it becomes involved in moral issues that affect us all, such as a death of one of the participants or spectators, deliberate cheating, consuming the earth's resources at a prodigious rate, promoting smoking or banking, spending taxpayers' money, instructing a driver to crash, or being apparently deaf, blind and dumb to human rights abuses. F1 provides ample ammunition to be labelled 'the bad boy' of world sport.
"But no one in the sport is pretending that F1 is the moral standard bearer for mankind. In fact, it caters for the little hedonist in all of us. It blows $1.4bn (£870m) every year on making a spectacular show. Some like it; some don't. That's freedom for you. On balance, most people let it get on with things and ignore its eccentricities. Every now and then, however, the sport is hauled up by public opinion and put on trial.
"F1 does not, cannot, and has never existed in total isolation from the general concerns of humanity. In this sense, the sport is always on the edge of politics. The moment something becomes an issue for all of us, it is a political issue. So the question is this; is the Bahrain Grand Prix now an issue for all of us? Or is it more accurate to ask; are Bahraini politics an issue for all of us?"
Among the 'critical' questions that Hill suggested the FIA needed to ask surrounding the Bahrain issue were those regarding 'security, politicisation and the reputation of its blue riband [category]'. While admitting that the promise of security had been 'satisfactory' despite the obvious risk involved with going to a politically unstable country, he could not come down decisively in the argument of whether the sport had been drawn into the politics of the situation.
"It is not clear," he wrote, "A problem in the lead-up to this event was the apparent collusion of F1 with the promoters in promulgating the view that Bahrain only had a small issue with a few unruly youths. This I regarded as a very clear case of understatement. It was the view of Bahrain that Bahrain would like the world to buy. And it was going to use F1 to help it. This was the point at which I expressed my concerns about this situation.
"For me, the FIA was dangerously close to appearing totally naive, misinformed or, worse, taking the side that would like to underplay the humanitarian, social and security situation in Bahrain. Sure enough, the international community has had quite a lot to say about what is going on in Bahrain since. This was so inevitable that I am still trying to understand why the FIA did not take the initiative by making at least some comment that indicated it understood the difficulty of the situation."
Hill appears to hold FIA president Jean Todt culpable for not doing something to help alleviate the feeling of discomfort, as the Frenchman's only noticeable contribution to the debate was to okay the announcement confirming the event would take place.
"This I find baffling," Hill continued, "Surely it is possible to condemn acts of inhumanity without taking a side? The [ruling] Khalifas asked for the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) themselves. Is it political to avoid religious, political and racial discrimination? Surely these are universal human values?
"I'm sure it would have been possible for the FIA to find the words to raise the sport up to the higher ethical plateau described by Nelson Mandela who said: "Sport can create hope where once there was only despair." Instead, with nothing said, what we have are a political issue, a security issue and an issue over the sport's reputation. Could this situation have been avoided? Possibly not. Could it have been ameliorated? I believe so."
While debating the situation, Hill concluded that the least F1 could have done was to have made some sort of statement regarding the reasons for its decision to stage the race without appearing to be politically tied to one side or the other.
"F1 has to take advice from those who are better qualified, but they must also be independent and have no conflict of interests," he suggested, "More importantly, the FIA has to keep F1 and its personnel safe from the world's tricky little traps, one of which is political, but the other is ethical.
"There is nothing in the FIA statutes that says the body cannot provide ethical guidelines. What is the overriding objective of this 'sport'? Is it to unite different political factions, or to display the potential of mankind and to inspire the young to take up a challenge from which they will learn about themselves and the world? Does F1 not show that humans are capable of extraordinary ingenuity and cunning, without resorting to disrespect for the rules of the game? Does it not show that some things are more valuable than money? We can always hope.
"I supported Todt's decision to go because I felt we should all go with our heads held up, knowing why we are there and what is expected of us. To prevaricate more would have been unprofessional. To go divided would be worse for F1. So let's get on with bringing our own unique brand of 'goodwill to mankind' and count ourselves lucky to be free to say what we think. But a bit more sensitivity would not go amiss."