It is my view that sports writers should not write all that much about politics. But F1 is a truly international sport that crosses every imaginable border, and politics was the only thing to write about when it got caught up in Bahrain’s Arab Spring.
But now, F1 went off to Azerbaijan. “Where?” Exactly – and that’s precisely why Azerbaijan has been spending its oil dollars in a big way when it comes to promoting the idea that Azerbaijan is not a backwards old Soviet nation right next to the terrible theocracy of Iran.
In fact, Azerbaijan is a green shoot of liberalism and moderation in this part of the world and it has every right to want to distance itself from the dangerous, backwards thinking in that region and align with the West. And we should be giving them a helping hand in doing so.
However, Bernie Ecclestone touched down in Baku – a place he quite openly admits that even as an Octogenarian he didn’t even know existed – only to be greeted by a barrage of the liberal F1 media’s questions about human rights.
“Do any of you know what human rights are?” the 85-year-old hit back.
Ah, Bernie. He loves Putin and he once said some nice things about Hitler. But does he have a point on this occasion?
Don’t get me wrong. Azerbaijan is not perfect – at all. Western governments have acknowledged that the political system is corrupt and not overly democratic. Liberal principles like freedom of speech are not completely embraced. Most of the reports about human rights violations are probably true.
But here’s the amazing part: Azerbaijan shares not only a border but also a common ancestry with Iran, its population is 95% Muslim and yet you will see less women wearing head-coverings in Baku than you will in Paris. You will also find many Jewish synagogues and schools and a happy Jewish community. By law, public schools are not religious. Religious leaders may not hold public office. The constitution guarantees that people may convert from Islam to atheism if they want to.
This is no Iran.
It’s also not Bahrain, back in the days when F1 engines were firing in the background while real fire was licking the air, blood was on the streets and fetid, violent smoke and tear-gas were in the air.
In fact, the F1 circus found a friendly, peaceful and thriving Baku. It reminded them a bit of Paris, or Rome – even London. The drivers spoke about the beauty of the old buildings and city walls they were racing past, and the modern majesty of the Flame Towers they could see from their Hilton hotel windows. They saw Lamborghinis on the streets, women in Western clothes sipping at cans of Coke and clutching Gucci shopping bags.
It may not be perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but there is absolutely no reason that it shouldn’t be on the calendar. In fact, it should be. Azerbaijan is an example of the direction Muslim-majority countries should be heading in.
After the chequered flag on Sunday, happy locals chanted and proudly waved their flags as the sparkling Chandon was sprayed. And we should be proud that Bernie Ecclestone took F1 there, too.