Will the first Formula 1 Grand Prix of the season take place as scheduled or not? The race is planned for 13 March in Bahrain, where there have been violent clashes between protesters and the security forces in recent days, leading to several deaths and many injuries.
While the people of Bahrain may be preoccupied with their wider concerns, the race organisers both internationally and locally face a difficult dilemma just three weeks ahead of the race. There has been extensive media coverage of the story (see for example Reuters and Al-Jazeera English).
There are a number of questions to consider:
- If the race goes ahead, will it be safe for all concerned?
- What is the deadline for making a decision?
- What do the teams and other stakeholders think?
- What are the reputational risks of running the race/cancelling?
- What are the financial implications of going ahead/cancelling?
- If the race goes ahead will everybody participate?
- What kind of precedent is being set?
It will be very hard to know if the right decision has been taken even after the event. The race may pass off without incident but at the cost of reputational damage. Or, if the event is cancelled and the region is peaceful during the competition, it could still be claimed that the Grand Prix would have provoked trouble.
From time to time team managers and other stakeholders do security assessments ahead of a sports event, as happened before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Although it is entirely responsible to listen to different points of view and survey the evidence, predictions are inherently unreliable – nobody knows what will happen in Bahrain. Whatever procedure is put in place for assessing risk, ultimately the decision will depend on the personal opinion of a small group of people.
When a significant perceived threat emerges in the lead up to a sports event there is a familiar pattern:
- The host country and organisers seek to reassure people
- The governing body or rights-holder will be supportive in public but frantically looking for an alternative in private
- Sponsors and TV broadcasters will wait to see which way the wind blows
- Athletes will look to their management for guidance and then make a decision based on their gut instinct
- Spectators will stay away if in any doubt
- The event will usually go ahead with less disruption than feared
In the specific case of the Bahrain Grand Prix the consequences of cancellation or postponement would be significant but not on a scale that would overwhelm Formula 1 as it begins a long season. In the context of a severe political crisis, an initial postponement seems likely.
What is the right decision? We will never know.