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Bahrain To Hold Grand Prix Despite Expected Protests


Another country hoping to revive one of its marquee sporting events is Bahrain. Formula 1's Bahrain Grand Prix was called off last year during the Arab Spring demonstrations. The international racing event brings in half a billion dollars to Bahrain and draws more than 100 million TV viewers around the world. This year's race is set for Sunday despite plans by anti-government protesters to target the event. For more, I'm joined by Ryan McGee. He's a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN MCGEE: Hi. How are you?

CORNISH: So to start, give us a sense of scale. Why is this race so important to Formula 1? Just how big is the Bahrain Grand Prix?

MCGEE: Well, for people that don't know, Formula 1 is essentially the soccer of motorsports. It may not be that popular, you know, generally in the United States, but globally, it's just massive. I mean, you mentioned the 100 million television viewers. That's in 187 different countries, every single weekend for 20 weekends throughout the season. And the teams pour billions of dollars into these cars, and there's so much money involved, invested and also, you know, owner return.

And for years, the kind of the last frontier for Formula 1 was they weren't able to get a foothold in the Middle East. And then when you had these cities, these giant cities, like we see in Bahrain, that just kind of sprang up out of the desert over the last 20 years, Formula 1 saw an opportunity there to get a foothold, you know, in these nations. And that's happened. And Bahrain has been a big part of that since 2004, obviously, with the exception of the last two years.

CORNISH: This can't be the first time that Formula 1 has had to deal with political strife in a country, then?

MCGEE: No, not at all. In fact, their last race was in China. And it was very controversial over the last couple of years when they started to move into China because they had received complaints from human rights groups and from some sponsors that were involved with these human rights groups. And even going back into the 1980s, you know, for decades, Formula 1 raced in South Africa even as apartheid, you know, became this global problem and the people start to become aware of. They still raced despite the protests.

But after the 1985 race, when it really became on the radar of the world, they backed out. It wasn't because the people that run the sport wanted to get out. It was because they had political pressure. Particularly, at that time, the president of Formula 1 was from France, and the nation of France was pulling out of South Africa business-wise altogether. So they went away. When apartheid went away, they came back in 1991. So they certainly have dealt with this before. At times, they've handled it very well, but a lot of times, they have not handled it very well at all.

CORNISH: So give us the update for the Bahrain Grand Prix. I've heard that there was an incident with Force Team India. What exactly are the drivers and racing teams facing?

MCGEE: Well, it's kind of like the scene in "Animal House" when Kevin Bacon says - stands there, says, all is well. You know, this is - there's nothing to see here. All is well. And that's the kind of message that you're getting not only from the Formula 1 directors but also from the people that run the racetrack and even from the royal family. But what's happening is more and more incidents are happening, and they're making this very real to the race teams. You know, Wednesday night, as you mentioned, four members of the Force India team kind of found themselves in the middle of this protest by accident.

And a firebomb landed near their vehicle. And two of those four, they've gone home. They got out of there. And so there's a lot of pressure. And when the story got out about that incident, you started to have people in British parliament, and you started to have people around the world say, should we really be doing this? And some of the drivers have mentioned that too. But I think the race will run on Sunday as scheduled.

CORNISH: Ryan McGee, he's a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Ryan, thank you for telling us about this.

MCGEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.