The Greenpeace protests over Arctic drilling at the Belgian Grand Prix have produced a mixed reaction.
While Greenpeace have claimed success, there are many, especially in the motorsport press that have branded it a failure. In terms of worldwide media coverage it was an abysmal failure, but viewed in the context of preparing and delivering a global message without disrupting the sporting event it targeted, it was an outstanding success.
It was one of the most carefully planned and elaborately staged protests in the history of sport. Greenpeace had protestors paraglide into the Belgian Grand Prix with banners highlighting the oil company's drilling within the Arctic circle. In addition they had protestors on the roof of the main grandstand opposite the pits who remained in place with their banner for the race; there were protestors above some of the trackside signage and two protestors who were stopped from abseiling down into the podium ceremony. In addition we had an ingenious radio-controlled banner that was unfurled in front of the podium during the ceremony, much to the embarrassment of Allsport, who run that part of the event.
The mass incursion into the race must have been hugely embarrassing for the race organisers and though we are unlikely to hear how it was co-ordinated, the fact that Greenpeace could still spring surprises on the organisers two hours after the initial reveal is a mark of how effectively they were duped.
Because all footage connected with the F1 grand prix and shot within the perimeter of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit is owned by Bernie Ecclestone's FOM company, only the inadvertent coverage of the protests got out. Bernie was able not only to stop it going out in vision, he was able to block any news reportage of it afterwards by the F1 broadcasters who had independent cameras there.
The BBC's ability to ignore it and not make reference was so adept, that it was quite a shock to learn (around Lap 23) that there were protestors dangling from the grandstand - a fact mentioned by James Allen on the radio (and repeated on the website feed) but only hinted at by the TV crew. Indeed David Coulthard's ability to concentrate on the job at hand of interviewing the drivers on the podium was astonishing. This is why he is a multiple GP winner, he can block things out and focus on the task while surrounded by abseiling eco warriors and two multi-million-dollar-earning schoolboys
Greenpeace's protests were clever in that they targeted the race sponsor not the race, drew attention to an under-reported area of concern, yet didn't stop the racing which the fans had come to see. The logistics and planning that they employed and demonstrated could easily have stopped the race had they chosen to do so. Where they failed spectacularly, was their understanding of who controls the footage shot during a GP weekend, plus the widespread fear of broadcasters to go against 'the company line'.
Even their own footage of the protest had to be taken down from YouTube within a day because of copyright infringement. Had they know this before they started you've got to think they would have gone a little further.
The protestors may not have succeeded in getting eyeballs on the 'Shell No!' banner, but the protest will have all kinds of repercussions. It will certainly make Shell think twice about sponsoring a European Grand Prix again and the Belgian Grand Prix is not so awash with cash that it can easily lose blue-chip sponsors.
It will mean that circuit security at every F1 race will be stepped up. For it to happen once in a season is bad enough, to have the podium ceremony disrupted again would be even more serious. The Allsport organisation are going to be exploring places around podiums that they've never looked before.
The obvious thought around any lapse of security is - what if the protestors had been terrorists?
Another is, what if protestors really want to stop a GP, not just use it as a vehicle. We had the Irish bible-basher Neil Horan jigging onto the Hangar Straight for the 2003 British GP which brought out the Safety Car. With Greenpeace's sophisticated grasp of technology - unfurling radio-controlled banners during the podium ceremony - how difficult would it be for them to fly some hefty radio controlled planes onto the circuit during a race?
We know that races get stopped for excessive debris on the track, what if Greenpeace decided to fly some radio controlled helicopters with 'Shell No!' banners on, then land them at a sensitive spot on the exit of a fast corner? It's unlikely to hurt someone, but would have to be dealt with by Race Control.
Greenpeace aren't playing dirty right now, but the lack of coverage of their grand adventure might provoke them into going one stage further. FIA chief Jean Todt is far more sensitive to the green lobby than Ecclestone has been in the past, and the moves toward energy recovery systems and fuel economy (and even Formula E) show that he is determined to make F1 more responsible. So it may be that it is big oil giants, such as Shell, who remain the target.
What last Sunday's race showed is that F1's huge arena makes it very vulnerable to a concerted, professional protest and that Bernie can exercise a totalitarian-state like ability to censor anything he doesn't want us to see during a GP weekend. And that Sebastian Vettel will be relieved that after the Canadian GP boos, it wasn't him who was the target of the post-race catcalls.