Companies who help to bankroll Formula One motor racing are limiting their involvement in the Bahrain Grand Prix this month, saving some of their marketing dollars for less politically sensitive races.
The grand prix was cancelled in 2011 following a bloody crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising, but sponsors were left squirming last year when the sport’s rulers ignored calls by campaigners in Bahrain and abroad for teams not to race, while police and youths staged nightly clashes with teargas and petrol bombs.
The race on April 21 will again draw attention to the human rights situation in the Gulf island kingdom. Taking a pragmatic approach, many sponsors will make the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November the focus for their Formula One promotional activities in the Middle East this year.
“Abu Dhabi has taken a lot away from Bahrain. Notwithstanding the trouble in Bahrain, the Abu Dhabi race is more interesting for sponsors,” said Jim Wright, a sponsorship consultant who worked in the sport for 18 years.
Bahrain was the first Middle East country to host a grand prix in 2004, but Abu Dhabi joined the calendar in 2009 with the Yas Marina circuit, lavish even by Formula One standards.
“The timing at the end of the year is also an advantage for Abu Dhabi,” added Wright. “Now, it’s starting to be spring (in Europe), and sponsors have an opportunity to take people to races in Barcelona and Monte Carlo next month,” he added.
Bahrain has been hit by unrest since pro-democracy demonstrations in early 2011, inspired by the broader regional “Arab Spring” protests that to date have forced rulers from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Critics say staging the race hands a propaganda boost to Bahrain’s rulers, though last year’s, despite dressing itself in the slogan “UniF1ed”, was seen as a public relations setback for the government, with television images of the unrest and heavy police presence broadcast around the world.
Two well known brands will be missing from the McLaren team at the Sakhir desert circuit in Bahrain, though the companies involved say they are not making a political point.
Diageo says its Johnnie Walker whisky brand will not be on display because of local cultural sensitivities about alcohol.
“In common with other Grands Prix in Muslim countries and elsewhere, for the Bahrain race we had always planned to respect local customs and laws and not to activate Johnnie Walker branding on the cars or drivers,” a Diageo spokeswoman said.
Vodafone, which also sponsors the McLaren team, said logos of its Middle East partner Zain would feature on the team’s cars and driver uniforms in Bahrain rather than its own brand.
This was a commercial decision rather than a political one, said Vodafone, which is ending its sponsorship of the team at the end of the season.
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