MANAMA (Reuters) - Formula One has no qualms about holding a grand prix in Azerbaijan next year despite concerns raised by rights activists, the sport’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone said on Sunday.
“Baku? No problem. That’s going to be another good race,” the 84-year-old told reporters at the Bahrain Grand Prix, another controversial fixture that follows on from China in a crowded calendar.
This year is the 11th Bahrain Grand Prix, with the 2011 race cancelled after an uprising by the Shi’ite Muslim majority to demand reforms in the strategic Gulf kingdom triggered a subsequent crackdown.
Formula One, heavily criticised by campaigners over the years, this week quietly published a statement of respect for human rights in which it agreed to carry out due diligence on future hosts.
Asked whether he would now “check out the human rights record in Baku”, Ecclestone responded: “We have. I think everybody seems to be happy. Doesn’t seem to be any big problem there.”
Azerbaijan, governed by President Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father in 2003, has been courted by the West as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.
Rights groups accuse the government of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies.
Formula One signed a contract with Azerbaijan last year for a 2016 Grand Prix of Europe around the streets of Baku.
Azerbaijan is also due to host the inaugural European Games this year after failed bids for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics.
While Baku stands to become the latest addition to the calendar, after Russia last year and the return of Mexico this season, the future of some of the sport’s most historic venues remains in doubt.
Germany has been removed from this year’s calendar due to financial reasons, but is due to return next year, while Monza’s contract to host the Italian Grand Prix expires in 2016.
“We have to wait and see. They don’t have an agreement. Bit like Germany really,” said Ecclestone when asked about the situation in Italy.
The prospect of Monza, a temple of Italian motorsport since the 1920s, dropping off the calendar would be unthinkable for most F1 fans but Ecclestone gave no indication that he was prepared to soften his stance.
“I tell you something. I was told that when we didn’t have a race in France actually. And Germany now,” he said. “We’ve got some good replacements, haven’t we?”
Editing by Ed Osmond