It’s right to object to Azerbaijan, but some are for the wrong reasons

It’s the human rights of the country, not that it’s new and has little motorsport heritage, that objections should be based on.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 29, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- It elicited a round of guffawing pretty much immediately. Among the assembled fourth estate in the media room in the Hungaroring, as well as among the sport’s followers on social media. That is, the announcement that as of 2016 there is to be an F1 Grand Prix in Azerbaijan, to be titled the ‘European Grand Prix’.

They had reached the right conclusion, but from what I can tell in many cases it was not for the right reasons. There is a very good case that can be made for F1 not to go to Azerbaijan. But my reading is that a few spectacularly missed it.

Instead, for those in a sport that likes to promote itself as being fast-moving and never stood still, plenty of them don’t half like to resist change. It’s not a ‘classic’ venue (it likely didn’t help as some kind of context that Monza’s been under threat lately); its motorsport heritage is paltry; it’ll get a small crowd, seemed the gist from many of the opponents from what I could tell.

As mentioned, the people saying these are on the right side of the argument at least. But what they base their objections on is wrong, or at least far less important than other reasons for objection to an Azerbaijan race that are available.

The more important reasons are to do with the sort of regime Azerbaijan’s is. It only takes cursory internet swotting to learn that while Azerbaijan is nominally a democracy there are considerable wider doubts about its human rights record, such as via political corruption, potentially fraudulent elections and oppression of the Government’s opposition, doubts about the freedom of the press (including the imprisonment of journalists) and the impartiality of the political media coverage, state-sanctioned violence, the detention of political prisoners and forcible home evictions.

And given this follows on from several other F1 host countries with similar doubts surrounding them, to paraphrase Daniel Kitson (and thanks to my brother for citing this one) when you think F1 cannot get any lower, it finds a rug, under which is a trapdoor and a ladder.

While at such moments we often hear familiar voices stating the one about ‘not mixing sport and politics’, well whatever the utility of that phrase in these sort of cases they hardly apply surely, given scarcely a sliver of light can be found between such events as these and the Governments that bankroll and seek to associate themselves closely with them – presumably to legitimise itself as a result. Therefore the event by extension legitimatises the Government’s actions, probably from the Government’s side intentionally.

The announcement of the Grand Prix deal from Azerbaijan's Minister of Youth and Sport indeed rather left little to the imagination on that one. Its title of the ‘Grand Prix of Europe’ is likely entirely political too, but more of that later. This sport has become the political, and chosen as much.  

Sport should be a celebration; a focus on what’s good among us. It being used as such a tool could hardly be more incongruent.

But F1 – at least those who are in charge of the calendar – it seems hardly bothers about such considerations these days. Bernie simply follows the money; always has (he was the last out and first back in to apartheid South Africa after all). The FIA doesn’t like sticking its ahead above the parapet, and while technically it signs off the race calendar after Bernie’s done the deals I struggle to think of a single occasion in this arrangement wherein it’s vetoed a race.

As we witnessed in Hungary’s Friday press conference too its participants don’t really like to talk about such issues, not in public at least. Not out of callousness I don’t think, but more than it’s a sort of issue they don’t like to think about; to delve into. Therefore we seem in something of an impasse.

At that teams’ press conference at the Hungaroring the human rights matter came up (as an aside I’m glad that it did, as given the considerations outlined at the article’s outset I was relieved that the concerns were at least shared by a few), and the mantra of the collection of team representatives in response was to the effect of ‘we’re racers/it’s up to the FIA’. The look in their eyes nevertheless screamed ‘I’m not touching that one’, perhaps even ‘let me out of here’. The persistence of the questioning resulted in Christian Horner losing his rag ever so slightly.

Perhaps though if we can’t appeal to all concerned on moral grounds we can utilise what psychologists call an appeal to self-interest. While the sport’s participants and others can act like such issues are several thousand miles away from them, it likely impacts negatively on them directly albeit via a roundabout route, and you wonder if they have calculated as much.

Monisha Kaltenborn in the very same press conference spoke of F1 as a ‘fantastic product, comparable to any big, global platform, comparable even to football or the Olympic Games’, while Marco Mattiacci also spoke of this activity as ‘one of the most phenomenal platforms of sport’. It’s true too – F1 is up there with the likes of the Olympics and World Cup in terms of international reach, and unlike those has the additional benefit of being an annual and year-long event.

And yet still there are plenty of F1 cars with barely a sponsor on them. And taking those away that are related to team ownership, to technical tie-ups or brought by drivers, suddenly F1 sponsors become a highly endangered species. Vast global brands whom you would have thought perfect for an F1 audience (McDonalds, Black & Decker…) are nowhere on the radar. Williams’ title sponsorship with Martini announced at the start of the season seemed the first time in years that such a deal had been struck in this game. That’s because it probably was.

You wonder if the same team principals have ever stopped and reflected as to why this apparent disconnect exists. It doesn’t seem all that unlikely that F1’s association with such regimes, perhaps its more general image of being amoral, is part of the issue. That it generally dilutes the brand. Perhaps too it loses the sport fans, current and potential, and other investment. And surely the quick buck it makes instead from vast hosting fees doesn’t compensate. If F1 teams aren’t taking a view on this perhaps they should start.

Yet even if the sport is going to decide to turn a blind eye on such matters then objecting to a host on the grounds that it’s different and new isn’t in itself nearly good enough.

Not only should it really be hardly the point, it also seems more generally to be against any sort of justice to insist simply on the grounds that it has never been visited before that a new event should not get a chance at least. As Edd Straw of Autosport rightly pointed out had the sport allowed such an attitude to bind it since the year dot the game never would have left Western Europe in the first place (OK – it perhaps now has left Western Europe too much, but that’s another story).

And yes of course there have been new-fangled Grands Prix in recent times that have flopped. Of course too F1’s these days no less than core financial model – that of raising revenue from claiming exorbitant hosting fees from Governments, often rather unpleasant ones, who are keen to ‘brand’ the country in some way and have a Grand Prix as a rather top-down imposition rather than seeking to grow motorsports from the grass roots – is now both well in motion as well as has plenty of dangers, only some of which I’ve outlined for the Azerbaijan case here (though in fairness on the motorsports grassroots point, Baku has been hosting GT rounds lately which puts it at least one up on a few debutant F1 host nations).

Yet plenty of venues that became fixtures have also faced severe doubts before F1 paid its first visit. Even Adelaide that rapidly became one of the most popular stop-offs in the sport’s history was the victim of opposition in advance; mainly that the fraternity viewed it as an unnecessary, draining, long haul flight at the end of the season to somewhere none of them had heard of, and assumed they’d then find a street track barely up to standard as they had in Dallas the previous campaign. How wrong they were.

Hungary, Singapore, even Austin, had similar talk of doom said of them too. Many instances of F1 parachuting into an uncharted (by the sport) territory have crashed and burned as intimated, but there is no reason to think it necessarily has to be so.

There was also an interesting side-show of the race getting the title of the European Grand Prix, resulting in a few of some who should know better proclaiming that Azerbaijan isn’t in Europe. Well, it is. At least partly, in that it straddles Europe and Asia. Where the border actually lies seems disputed but some have Baku itself in Europe too.

Whatever is the case it appears Baku is keen to promote itself as a European city and has sought to do so via various means – which presumably is a lot of the reason it’s struck this deal as well as struck one that gives its race its particular title.

Geographically-dubious Grand Prix titles are nothing new either. The Turkish Grand Prix always took place on the Asian side of the Bosphorus but that didn’t stop it routinely being referred to as a European round. In 1982 the Swiss Grand Prix was held in, um, Dijon in France (motorsport was and is banned in Switzerland). The 1997 ‘Luxembourg Grand Prix’ was held in Germany. Then of course we have several San Marino Grands Prix not held in San Marino…

But we threaten to digress once again. None of this really should matter. Not compared with the other issues that are bound up with the forthcoming event. And if it is so that they have become the things that matter then that likely is some kind of indictment of where the sport has gotten itself to.

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