Bernie Ecclestone unchanged on Bahrain stance
MANAMA // Bahrain Grand Prix organisers will host a news conference in Sakhir today to announce the ticket launch for the country's Formula One race, despite fresh outbreaks of violence in the Gulf kingdom.
This afternoon's announcement arrives less than a week after armoured vehicles were deployed around the country's capital on Tuesday as Shiites marked the first anniversary of their uprising against Bahrain's Sunni rulers. Television images showed police firing tear gas at protesters in what appeared to be an attempt to prevent a repeat of marches that had been held the previous evening.
Last night, downtown Manama seemed quiet, albeit with a heightened police presence on the streets and increased security at the country's international airport. On Friday, the Financial Times reported, police had used water cannons to disperse crowds hurling Molotov cocktails and stones.
The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), governing body of world motors sports, and Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 commercial rights owner, remain adamant this year's race will take place.
Today's ticket launch is the strongest indication yet that race organisers have no intention of cancelling the event for a second successive year.
"The FIA, like many in the diplomatic community in the kingdom, the main political opposition … believes the staging of a Grand Prix would be beneficial in bridging some of the difficulties Bahrain is experiencing," a spokesman for the FIA said on Wednesday. "The FIA is not in a position to influence political matters in a sovereign country such as Bahrain and we can only wish for a long-term peaceful solution."
Two groups of British parliamentarians have this month written letters to The Times of London arguing for and against the race.
Damon Hill, the former F1 champion, said F1 can return to Bahrain "with a clear conscience" after he visited the country alongside Jean Todt, the FIA president, in late December.
Tuesday marked the first deployment of armoured vehicles on the streets since martial law was lifted in June, but Ecclestone told The Guardian newspaper he did not believe the heightened tensions would affect the fourth race of the F1 season.
"I don't think it's anything serious at all. It doesn't change our position in any shape or form," Ecclestone said.
"If the [rulers] in Bahrain say 'Look, Bernie, it wouldn't be good for you to come over here,' then I would think again. That is what they said last year.
"I am in regular touch with the Bahrain government and they would tell me if we shouldn't be there."
Bahrain's influence in F1 has steadily grown since the island state hosted its first race in 2004.
Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa, who heads the FIA's karting commission, sits on the world body's 26-man council alongside the UAE's Mohammed ben Sulayem. Also, Mumtalakat, Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund, is a major shareholder in the McLaren team.
When Martin Whitmarsh, the team principal of McLaren and chairman of the Formula One Teams Association, last year signed a letter informing the FIA that teams would not attend a rescheduled event in Bahrain, it is understood that his actions were not well received in the kingdom's corridors of power.
Also, Ecclestone's Formula One Management company is estimated to receive a US$40 million (Dh146.9m) hosting fee from the kingdom each year. Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull Racing, said he expects F1 to be in Sakhir for the April 20-22 event. "As far as I'm aware we're definitely going," he said. "We rely on the FIA - it's the FIA Formula One world championship after all - and Bahrain is one of the races on the calendar.
"They are far better placed to know what the issues are, and we trust their judgement, as we do the promoter, and we'll see how things develop. But as of today there's a race committed to Bahrain, and we'll be there."
Bahrain became the first country in the Middle East to have a Formula One race when it made its debut seven years ago, before being joined on the 20-race calendar by Abu Dhabi in 2009.
This year's race at Bahrain International Circuit is scheduled the weekend immediately following the Chinese Grand Prix and two weeks ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix.