x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

FIA president says F1 teams are happy in Bahrain

Jean Todt moves to allay fears despite death of demonstrator and planned protests.

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, left, talks to Jean Todt, the FIA president, in the paddock at the Bahrain International Circuit.
Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, left, talks to Jean Todt, the FIA president, in the paddock at the Bahrain International Circuit.

SAKHIR // Dressed in black trousers and a dark grey shirt, Jean Todt cut a grave figure in the Formula One paddock yesterday, but the president of the governing body for world motorsports insisted there is a vibe of positivity among the F1 fraternity ahead of today's Bahrain Grand Prix.

The decision by the Frenchman, the head of the FIA, to go ahead with today's race in the kingdom, has been greeted by much criticism with increased protests against the country's government and the presence of Formula One.

The tension among the race teams heightened with confirmation that the body of an activist was found dead yesterday morning.

Bahrain's chief of public security said an investigation has been opened into the death, which "was determined to have happened under suspicious circumstances".

Two demonstrations are planned for today, with one scheduled to take place within three kilometres of Bahrain International Circuit, and threats of road blockades and the burning of tyres.

Todt refused to comment on the protester's death and said he was not aware of any fears among the people he had spoken to in the paddock.

"In any democratic country, protests are allowed," Todt, speaking for the first time since arriving on Friday evening, said.

"It allows people who want to protest to give their voice - and it happens all over the world.

"There are some protests in our country where we live, and sometimes we don't feel comfortable to go - because there can be some protests.

"If you go to any football field, if you have a protest you will have a minimum of three people who can be hurt.

"I don't want to take any kind of example, but it has happened in Britain, in Germany, in France, all over the world. It is something that can happen, but it does not mean we have to stop sport moving along.

"When you talk to people about the sport, they are very happy and very excited about what is happening.

"Again talking to people who facilitate that - the marshals, they are delighted and very happy. And for me it is a very good message from the sport."

The Frenchman's words are in contrast to the feelings emanating from Force India, the British-based team who, two evening's earlier, saw a car carrying four staff come close to a firebomb after being caught up in an incident between police and protesters.

Two Force India staff have since flown home and the team withdrew from Friday's second practice session, despite pressure from Bernie Ecclestone that saw the sport's commercial rights owner offer to accompany unescorted team members back to their hotel.

Force India's cars did not appear on television coverage of qualifying yesterday, and it is understood team officials do not expect to feature on the live feed from today's race either. Conspiracy theorists suggest the lack of coverage is Ecclestone's revenge, an idea the sport's chief dismissed.

Todt said regardless of the increased controversy surrounding this afternoon's race, the image of Formula One was strong enough to emerge unscathed and added he had no regrets about giving the green light for the event to go ahead.

"I feel F1 is very strong," he said. "It is a very strong brand, and I think all the people among the teams to whom I have been speaking are very happy. I was even told it would have been a mistake not to come.

"Again, you speak to those people. That is what I have been told by most of the team principals here."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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