Do not think Vettel unusually solipsistic. His views are mainstream within the paddock and the wider F1 family. This is not a group that places human rights at the top of the grid. Three-time world champion and former team-owner Jackie Stewart revealed how commercial interests have become the only concerns that count: "This is the largest TV sport in the world on an annual basis. What about the sponsors. Whether it's Mobil, or Total or Shell -- they're going to seen by hundreds of millions of people.... If you are a sponsor for that team, do you think it's correct not to get the exposure they have bought as a supplier? It's the responsibility of the race organisers to make the race safe for us to participate in."
Human rights should know their place and, plainly, their place is some way behind commercial rights. Besides, said Stewart, "Bahrain is probably more advanced in creating democracy than any other country in the entire Middle East. Look at Syria and Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and they are not as advanced in their democracy as Bahrain. But Bahrain does have a problem with religion, just as we did in Northern Ireland. None of these countries have full democracies. But no democracy has been created without time."
Decency is relative. Precedent, apparently, is not. As Stewart argued, "If we don't go to Bahrain how are we going to suggest that we're going to go to Russia in 2014? And we go to [South] Korea. We've got to be very careful."
Quite. According to John Yates, a former Scotland Yard police officer who, despite being forced to resign after being caught up in the phone-hacking scandal that roiled Britain last year, now advises the Bahrain government, the Western media has been gulled by a "distorted picture" of the democracy protests in that country. Writing to Jean Todt, the head of F1's governing body, Yates claimed that "Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London."
The protests, he said, are only "criminal acts being perpetrated against an unarmed police force who, in the face of such attacks, are acting with remarkable restraint. These people are intent on causing harm to the police and the communities in which they live. They are not representative of the vast majority of delightful, law-abiding citizens that represent the real Bahrain that I see every day."
Such is the consequence of selling your sport to the highest bidder. Formula One, thanks to its global television audience, has become a plaything for regimes that see hosting races as a way of burnishing their reputations. The Khalifa family are not the only despots to appreciate how useful F1 can be. This year, races will be held in less-than-democratic China, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.
With the possible exception of soccer, few sports have been as quick as Formula One to appreciate the importance of new and lucrative Asian markets. Once a European phenomenon with outposts in South America, F1 has embraced globalization. This year, fewer than half the races will be held in Europe.
The shift east owes something to European hostility to the tobacco advertising that has traditionally fuelled F1 and much, of course, to the rising middle classes in Korea, Malaysia, China, and India (all of which host races this year). Most of all, however, it is the work of one man: Bernie Ecclestone.