I asked myself that question as I watched the closing laps of Sunday’s Bahrain Formula 1 race – an event that became a lightning rod for protesters who say it was simply a PR exercise by the ruling Sunni party to mask its totalitarian regime.
Media reports said many F1 teams were “quietly uncomfortable” about taking part in the race but went ahead with it anyway. It appears of the drivers spoke little about, or even acknowledged, the protests in Bahrain, adding fuel to those who criticize them as pampered automatons.
Oddly enough, Bahrain was a pretty good race, in the sense of diminished expectations that most of us have for an F1 race. The pole-sitter won yet again, in this case it was Sebastian Vettel, trailed by Kimi Raikkonen about three seconds behind. There were some daring passes, pit lane miscues and some pretty impressive driving, which is not always on display in F1.
Still, I wonder how relevant F1 and even auto racing in general is anymore. It’s murky at best whether new technology used in race cars finds its way into road cars; the environmental cost of burning through barrels of fuel (NASCAR switched to unleaded fuel only in 2008) and piles of tires is rising and younger generations are less interested in driving, let alone racing.
So what becomes of it? I still believe that it’s important in our often sanitized world to appreciate those people, like racing drivers, who push the boundaries of control and put themselves at risk for the sheer joy of taking that risk. But is that risk worth it anymore? Haven’t all the boundaries been pushed? Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like the environment and human rights?
I don’t expect Formula 1 team owners, sponsors or drivers to have all the answers. But, if they hope to have a sustained connection to their fans they need to at least ask themselves those questions.