The Blog

Real Life v the Bahraini Grand Prix

It's the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, so that's my excuse for mentioning Fast Cars. I'll get back to the F1 stuff in a minute, but first ... more on the mighty Buzzcocks!

Ooh, they make me dizzy' - Buzzcocks, Fast Cars

Yeah, all these years later it's still a favourite. Buzzcocks' always-exhilarating song springs to mind whenever I think of Formula One, that commercially turbo-charged extravaganza of cars "going 'round and 'round".

It's the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, so that's my excuse for mentioning Fast Cars. I'll get back to the F1 stuff in a minute, but first ... more on the mighty Buzzcocks!

So singer Pete Shelley's raised-eyebrow camp-punk performance is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. He disses speeding motors ("I hate fast cars"), but it's all in typically mischievous new wave fun. Or is it? Buzzcocks are known for their winsome punk romanticism but Fast Cars has a surprising hat-tip to the US road safety campaigner (and later presidential candidate) Ralph Nader ("Sooner or later you're gonna listen to Ralph Nader"). A bit of a swerve into serious territory there.

Take or leave it, but I've always thought references like this were meant to resonate. They're there to lodge in the minds of impressionable teenagers (like I was) hearing the songs for the first time. It's fun, it's exciting (it's "punk rock") but the real world's never far away.

I reckon there's a definite connection between music and sport in this regard. At their most commercial, both construct alternative worlds peopled with larger-than life figures affected by soaring emotions or gripping "battles". In his excellent book Mediated, Thomas De Zengotita argues that music and sport are the two areas of modern media-saturated life that tend to have most impact on people (specifically people's subjectivity, their sense of self), precisely because of music and sport's combination of artificiality and authenticity. Jordan Spieth is already a media construct - hot young Texan, the new Tiger Woods, "looks good in hats" (er, thanks for that InStyle). But he's also authentic - he can make the drives, sink the putts.

It's artificial, created by PR and commerce. But it's also real, involving genuine feats that most people can't match. (This possibly also explains sport's preoccupation with statistics, the data that gives factual solidity to all the media storifying. With Formula One it's all about lap times, engine specs and tyre compounds). So on the one hand the prospect of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg slugging it out during this Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix is a blatant bit of pre-race hype (so blatant that presumably even the most ardent F1 fans know it's contrived). But it could happen nevertheless.

This (sometimes queasy) mix of unreal and real is especially interesting with the Bahrain Grand Prix. Of all the fixtures in the F1 season this is the one that's recently seen repeated instances of unscheduled real life upsetting the delicate artifice-but-it's-also-real balance. When pro-democracy protests in 2011 led to the Bahrain race's cancellation, things went seriously out of kilter. There was a whole eruption of those "sport v politics" debates. Things have supposedly calmed down and the racing crews and paparazzi are back. The 2012 tournament was controversial but went ahead. Subsequent fixtures have also gone ahead and by last year motor race journalists were celebrating a "thriller" of a race, a "classic".

Yes, the media-sport caravan is back on the road but real life - what you might call real real life - hasn't gone away. In the same month that Lewis Hamilton was winning last year's "thrilling" Bahrain race, Nafeesa al-'Asfoor and Rayhana al-Mousawi were being given five-year jail sentences. These two Bahraini women had conducted a protest outside the F1 race track in Manama in 2013 to raise attention over the persecution of prominent Bahraini activists. Both have separately told Amnesty that they were tortured into making false confessions (a common allegation in Bahrain). Nevertheless, they were convicted on terrorism charges, just one example of scores of dubious and downright politicised cases in Bahrain (see the new Amnesty report on this).

Earlier this year the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond reckoned the Bahraini authorities under the UK's close ally King Hamad Al Khalifa were doing well with their long-promised "reforms". Bahrain was, he said, "travelling in the right direction". Perhaps he should tell that to the country's prisoners of conscience and those (including children) being tortured in Bahrain's jails and police cells. Or to those being tear-gassed by the security forces or banned from protesting in the capital Manama, or indeed those entirely stripped of their nationality. Meanwhile, the country's Interior Ministry has reportedly spent this week letting it be known that anyone thinking of "attempting to defame the international event and the interests of Bahrain before, during and after the Formula 1 race" will face the full force of the law.

No, Mr Hammond's apparently suffering from a lack of reality here, having perhaps absorbed too much expensively-purchased Bahraini government spin. Spin and PR. Which kind of sums up the Grand Prix as well. Spinning wheels, logo-festooned media characters, a cocoon of not-real reality: champagne sprayed but not consumed, journeys made only to return to where you started from.

As they go 'round and 'round, fast Formula One cars definitely do make me dizzy. And despite Philip Hammond's "right direction" comment, these expensive shiny cars are making about as much real progress as the Bahraini authorities with their stalled human rights reforms ...