A Reminder That F1 Is a Very Shady Business

On the eve of the European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan, some important things to remember about Formula 1.

F1 Grand Prix of Russia
Dan Istitene—Getty Images

The streets of Baku, the picturesque capitol of Azerbaijan, are lined with beautiful twelfth-century buildings, cafes, and luxurious hotels. The narrow streets and boulevards are mostly cobblestone, except the 3.73-mile loop upon which Formula 1 will race this weekend for the second running of what is called the European Grand Prix. That part is paved. 

The start/finish line of the Baku Grand Prix crosses Freedom Square, in the center of Baku, which is ironic because Freedom Square has been a longtime gathering place for anti-corruption protests that mostly ended with the brutal jailing of dissidents and the consolidation of power by the ruling Aliyev family—an slimy knot of kleptocrats three generations deep that have bathed in oil money since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

The biggest protest in Freedom Square ended in a violent crackdown by security forces in October 2003, following the election of the current president, Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father and remains in power today. Since his election, opposition politicians, journalists, bloggers and activists have been jailed by the hundreds on ludicrous charges.

Aliyev is the man Bernie Ecclestone approached with a proposal to deliver unto Baku the European Grand Prix. Azerbaijan, where the average monthly wage is $300, is primarily an oil state, which is likely what drew oleaginous Ecclestone to it in the first place. All of the burden of hosting the event falls on the Azerbaijani people, who have spent well over $250 million for hosting rights and infrastructural improvements as part of the deal. 

Getty images

Ecclestone, who surely pocketed many millions more from Azerbaijan in personal baksheesh, responded last year to complaints from human rights organizations that Formula One has a "clear conscience."

Of course it does. By Ecclestone's logic—and presumably the logic of his replacement, mustachioed American Chase Carey—every country is a little bit corrupt. When Bahrain erupted in the Arab Spring, F1 blithely rolled into the center of a burning city and unfurled its checkered flag. Nothing to see here, Charlie Whiting. Russia hosts a GP in Sochi, despite the fact that its president jails and murders dissidents and journalists. So what's the big deal?

Ecclestone has famously shitty opinions. He is a staunch supporter of murderous strongman Vladimir Putin and mouthy defender of Sepp Blatter, the infamously corrupt former head of FIFA. He told a Russian TV station that he didn't “think there’s any place for democracy, full stop. Anywhere.” He has also spent $100 million to buy his way out of very serious bribery charges in Germany and siphoned—by hook or by crook—many billions from F1. 

But the shadiness of F1 doesn't begin or end with Bernie. After all, the series raced in Spain throughout the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, who terrorized the populace and murdered as many as 50,000 of its citizens in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. 

Liberty Media, which purchased controlling interest of F1 in January of this year, has indicated that it is at least aware of Ecclestone's mendacity. In an interview with Autosport in March, Liberty CEO Greg Maffei said, "Frankly, Bernie's attitude was, 'How much can I extract from them?' I heard him call them the victims—'How much can I extract, how much up front?' So we end up with races in places like Baku in Azerbaijan, where they paid us a big race fee, but it does nothing to build the long-term brand and health of the business."

However, he stops short of taking any sort of moral stand against sportswashing—the practice of dictators like Aliyev and Putin of using big sporting events (the Olympics, F1, et al) to cover up larger crimes.

It's not F1's job to solve geopolitical problems, after all. We have Putin, Theresa May, and Donald Trump taking care of that stuff. But it should at least try to be less shady. It would be courageous for Chase Carey to show that sort of moral leadership. Meanwhile, how about moving the European GP back into context: say, Monza? Or Imola? Or the Nordschliefe?