VOA’s Pam Dockins got to speak to Sky Television commentator and former world driving champion Damon Hill about this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix. Hill had previously said that running the race would be good for Bahrain and Formula One, but now says that FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) should reconsider going. The transcript is below.
You’ve been very vocal about the race in Bahrain. Last year and this year you voiced concerns about running the race. What is your position about this month’s race?
“I think that the situation has really got to be assessed by the FIA and the teams. The teams are the people that have got to take the responsibility and the FIA. My concern was that in announcing that they were going back to Bahrain, the FIA appeared to be underplaying really the issues. And I think that that has made Formula One open to the accusation of not really understanding or appreciating the concerns of the protests in Bahrain.
Last year they canceled the race. It’s a year later, and the problems continue. You obviously can’t make the decision for Formula One, but do you think running the race will put Formula One in a bad light?
“The problem for Formula One is that it is bound to be used as an opportunity for people to make their case, and the problem at the moment is they’re making their case violently. So the protests that are going on have been quite problematic for the security in Bahrain. Now, they might very well have a good case and that’s not really for Formula One to get involved in that internal politics of Bahrain.
But I think that if you don’t acknowledge that there’s a situation that is a real situation and that the people may have a good case to be heard, then I think you can lay yourself open to be accused of taking sides. And that’s not something that the sport is supposed to be doing, it’s supposed to be an apolitical organization, but it’s going to Bahrain, and there is a lot of protest and people want to be heard. And I think that if you simply act as if there’s no issue, then those voices tend to get louder.
F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone has said Formula One cannot force teams to go to Bahrain, but reminded them that they have a contractual obligation to go. What’s your reaction?
That’s a tricky one for the drivers and the teams. There is a contractual obligation for Formula One, everyone signed up to go and race there. But I think above all else there has to be consideration given to the pros and cons of going to Bahrain, if for example some excessive security was required to quell protests because the protesters saw this as an opportunity to make their point more loudly, then to what extent would that damage the reputation of Formula One? Formula One shouldn’t be imposing itself…
Will this damage Formula One’s reputation?
“I hope not. I honestly hope it doesn’t. I hope all goes well. I hope that Bahrain gets its Grand Prix; it’s very important for the economy in Bahrain. There’s a lot of very good people working, people who are getting on with their lives and do not want to be disrupted by the protests. But to actually simply pretend that the effect of the protests is not real is not to understand the power of the situation, because it clearly is getting lots of coverage.
And there have been some human rights campaigners who are doing a very good job of getting their campaign heard. I think if you live in Bahrain, most people in Bahrain say that they are unaffected by this and they can get on with their lives normally. But the trouble is when you arrive with a sporting event of the magnitude of Formula One with 350 million viewers worldwide that will be a good opportunity to get your case heard. So that’s where I think Formula One has to be very careful and consider that.
Have any of the drivers or teams contacted you asking your opinion or advice?
No, not at all. I’m a commentator on Formula One. And my concern is for Formula One. I think that if Formula One had made the point earlier in the day that it understands that there are internal political issues in Bahrain , but it doesn’t want to take any sides, it wants to come for the benefits of people who want to peacefully enjoy the sport, if it had said something along the lines of that, then maybe it wouldn’t have made itself the target for objection.
I can understand the position they have which is that they do not want to appear to be involved in politics, or taking sides. The trouble is the side that they’re on is the side that the protesters are objecting to. And so that’s a bit of a difficult one.
Is it too late to make that point?
Maybe not; maybe not. I think that sport is a powerful tool. I mean [former South African president Nelson] Mandela himself has said that sport is a powerful activity for communicating cooperation and competition – all the good things in life. So why should we not say that that’s what we’re about. I mean, I don’t like – I don’t believe in violent protests – I think everyone has a case to be heard. But if you don’t hear people, I think you can understand why they become more vociferous.
The Bahrain Grand Prix is scheduled for April 22.
David Byrd is a journalist, writer, video editor and photographer. He is also the host of VOA's American Cafe, a weekly show covering life and culture in the United States.