F1 returns to divided Bahrain

2012-04-19 15:49

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The Bahrain Grand Prix returns to the divided Gulf nation, where Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel's bid to salvage his season is likely to be overshadowed by anti-government demonstrations and suffocating security.

The last-minute decision to go ahead with the race (April 22), cancelled in 2011 due to anti-government protests, was made after Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone declared the Gulf kingdom safe. Ecclestone claims all 12 teams told him they were happy to travel to the island nation despite violent daily clashes between security forces and protesters.

On April 17, thousands of protesters demanding greater rights for the Shiite majority chanted slogans criticising the Sunni rulers and called for the release of political prisoners, including Mushaima and al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than two months.


The Coalition of the Youth of the February 14 revolution and other rights groups have said protests will continue through the race weekend. They argue the race should be postponed until the government ends its rights abuses, enacts meaningful reforms and starts dialogue with the opposition.

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said: "The regime was isolated because of the crimes it committed and the Bahrain Grand Prix is giving a way out for the government, especially the royal family."

"We need this regime to be punished for the crimes it has committed in the past year and half," he said.

For Bahrain's Sunni rulers, the race is nothing short of an economic lifeline.

The Bahrain GP is the nation's biggest sports event, drawing a worldwide TV audience of about 100-million in 187 countries. It brought in a half-billion dollars in 2010 and 100 000 visitors, according to global risk analysis group Maplecroft. Such an infusion is desperately needed in a country whose economy contracted 50% in 2011 due to the unrest, Maplecroft said.

Organisers have repeatedly insisted the race will be safe and that security fears are overblown. They have blamed extremist groups using "scare-mongering tactics" for raising doubts about the race and have employed everyone from Bahrain football coach Peter Taylor to John Yates, a former assistant commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police Service, to assure race teams and fans that the race will be problem-free.


Rather than sowing divisions, they have insisted the race can unite the country. They have spent heavily for the past weeks on events aimed at promoting the race, even rolling out a new slogan Unif1ed-One Nation in Celebration.

Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa said: "This race is more than a mere global sport event and should not be politicised to serve certain goals, which may be detrimental to this international gathering."

He owns the rights to the Grand Prix and serves as commander of the armed forces. Protesters argue that the F1 decision to return to Bahrain gives greater international legitimacy to the monarchy and its crackdowns, which rights activists claim have included waves of arrests.

The race itself should be a wide open affair with no clear favourite and at least half a dozen drivers with a solid chance to win. The race's unpredictability is a reflection of a surprising F1 season in which three different drivers have won the first three races.

McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who has finished third in all three races, leads the driver standings with 45 points, two ahead of his team mate Jenson Button who won the season-opening Australian GP and finished second in China. Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who won the Malaysian GP, is third with 37 points, followed by Red Bull team mates Mark Webber (36) and Vettel (28).

Much of the attention will be on Vettel, who in 2010 became the youngest F1 champion but has struggled in 2012. He has had only one podium finish that being second place in Australia. He finished fifth in China after qualifying 11th but a collision with back-marker Narain Karthikeyan dropped him to 11th place.

That is in stark contrast to 2011 when he won six of the first eight races and was on the podium 17 times.


Vettel has acknowledged his car is not performing the way it did last season, though he insists the season was not lost and he was looking forward to the challenges that Bahrain offers.

Vettel said: "The track requires a lot from the drivers, because the constantly changing character of the corners means you never really get time to settle in to a lap,"

"Also, as the track's built in the middle of the desert, you have to manage the sand there. It moves with the wind, so it can suddenly appear in new places on the track, so you're never quite sure where it will be slippery," said Vettel.

Ferrari, too, will be looking to get their season back on track in Bahrain. Alonso failed to capitalise on his unexpected Malaysian win during the Chinese GP.  Alonso finished ninth and team mate Felipe Massa finished down in 13th. Much of their problems have been blamed on a lack of pace in qualifying and races, a challenge that Alonso and the team admit cannot be fixed overnight.

Alonso said: "We can expect another difficult weekend, which is only natural, partly because of the track characteristics and also because the car is the same one we had in Shanghai."

"I have a good record in Bahrain: The team has four victories here and I've got three, the last of which was also my debut race for the Prancing Horse. But the past counts for nothing in this sport and this weekend will be all about damage limitation for us," he said.

Mercedes, meanwhile, will be looking to build on its surprising start to the season.

Nico Rosberg won the Chinese GP for his first career F1 victory while his team mate Michael Schumacher showed signs of his comeback finally bearing fruit.

He finishing third in qualifying and moved up to the front row when Hamilton, who qualified second, was penalised for a gearbox change. Schumacher retired on the 13th lap after his right front wheel was improperly fitted after the first pit.

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