Bahrain prince insists F1 is on, as unease grows

Bahrain's rulers insisted on Friday this weekend's Grand Prix must go ahead to avoid "empowering extremists" after the Gulf kingdom was rocked by fresh violence and the Force India team pulled out of a practice session.

Updated: April 20, 2012 22:13 IST
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Manama, Bahrain: Bahrain's rulers insisted on Friday this weekend's Grand Prix must go ahead to avoid "empowering extremists" after the Gulf kingdom was rocked by fresh violence and the Force India team pulled out of a practice session.

"I think cancelling just empowers extremists," Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa said during a media briefing at the Sakhir circuit.

"I think for those of us who are trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, and get people working together."

His remarks came after Force India released a statement saying that "for logistical reasons" it would not take part in Friday's second practice "to ensure the most competitive performance in FP3, qualifying and the race."

Earlier, deputy team principal Bob Fearnley told Autosport magazine they were considering curtailing practice in order to return to their hotel before dark. But they would not miss qualification on Saturday afternoon or Sundays' race.

As second practice continued as usual for the rest of the teams, Formula One's chief executive and commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone appeared unmoved about escalating safety concerns.

"I can't call this race off. It is nothing to do with us, the race," said Ecclestone.

"You guys love it," he told reporters. "What we really need is an earthquake or something like that so you can write about that. I think you guys want a story - and it is a good story - and if there isn't a story, you make it up as usual. So nothing changes."

Four Force India team members were caught up in a confrontation between protesters and police on Wednesday when a petrol bomb exploded near their car. Two team members chose to leave Bahrain on Thursday.

Ecclestone said that "none of the other teams seem to have a problem."

The Sauber team on Friday confirmed they drove through a similar incident on Thursday. None of the 12 mechanics in an unmarked mini-bus was hurt.

Nico Rosberg of Mercedes topped the times in Friday's second free practice but said he was concerned about his tyres overheating in the high temperatures. World championship leader Lewis Hamilton said high track and air temperatures posed a major challenge, and compared the practice to driving on an ice rink.

Witnesses told AFP that fresh violence broke out overnight in Shiite villages far from the Sakhir circuit, and rumbled on until early Friday.

"Eighteen people were wounded" when security forces fired buckshot and tear gas to disperse protesters, said rights activist Mohammed Maskati.

"The people want to topple the regime," dozens of protesters shouted as they carried pictures of jailed hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. "Down Hamad," they cried, referring to Bahrain's king, witnesses said.

The protesters hurled petrol bombs at security forces, witnesses said. Maskati said he was at a march in Bani Jamra village where tear gas was fired.

The protests were "a message to those taking part in the F1 race to bring their attention to human rights violations in Bahrain," Maskati told AFP, adding that "95 people have been arrested since April 14."

Amid unease among Grand Prix participants - Force India's British driver Paul Di Resta admitted it was an "uncomfortable situation" - Salman accepted some F1 teams had safety and security concerns.

"I absolutely can guarantee that any problems that may or may not happen are not directed at F1," he said. "It goes to show that there are people who are out to cause chaos.

"You (in Britain) had these problems last year in your country and there is a very big difference between protesting for political rights and rioting."

"The attack that happened around Force India was aimed at the police. It was unprovoked, and it was quite dangerous. But at no time was anyone from F1 in danger," he said.

The February 14 Youth Movement has called on social networking sites for "three days of rage" to coincide with the race.

And Bahrain's main opposition group, Al-Wefaq, had called for a week of daily protests during the Grand Prix to focus media attention on their long-standing demands for reforms.

The Bahrain event was cancelled last year in the wake of the uprising and the government crackdown that followed in which a government commission said 35 people were killed.

Predominantly Shiite Iran, which has strained ties with the Sunni-ruled kingdom, called on Bahrain to "end the suppression" against its Shiite-majority population.

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