x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sheikh Salman moves to allay Bahrain Grand Prix fears

Force India choose to skip second practice at Sakhir as crown prince states cancelling race would "empower extremists".

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, left, and Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock at the Bahrain International Circuit.
Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, left, and Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock at the Bahrain International Circuit.

SAKHIR // The crown prince of Bahrain made an impromptu appearance at the kingdom's international racing circuit yesterday to try to calm frayed nerves as tensions continue to rise ahead of Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix.

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, flanked by Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights owner of Formula One, appeared in the paddock at Bahrain International Circuit shortly after it was confirmed that the Force India team would withdraw from the day's second practice session in order to travel to their lodgings before nightfall.

Emotions in the paddock remain fraught after four Force India staff were caught between police and anti-government protestors on Wednesday night after leaving the Bahrain International Circuit. The Sauber F1 team also revealed that masked men ran at their team bus on Thursday evening.

No one was injured in either incident, but two Force India staff have since flown home.

The crown prince, who owns the rights to Bahrain's event, stopped short of unconditionally promising safety, but said he could "absolutely guarantee" the Formula One teams and personnel were not being targeted.

"There is a very big difference between protesting for a political right and rioting, and the attack that happened around Force India was aimed at the police, was unprovoked and was quite dangerous," Sheikh Salman said.

"But at no time was anybody from Formula One in danger."

Bob Fernley, the deputy team principal at Force India, said the decision to withdraw from the afternoon practice session was "not a slight at all on the event", but added "there is no question, [the Wednesday incident] destabilised the emotional element of our team". Fernley faced strong pressure from his team, but insisted Force India has every intention of taking part in today's qualifying session and tomorrow's race.

"It's an internal matter that just needs stability, we provided that stability and we've stuck with the programme that we've had to put in place," he said.

By skipping the second practice session, which saw Mercedes-GP's Nico Rosberg finish fastest, the team was able to leave the circuit earlier than planned and hoped to avoid the planned protest that took place near to the circuit 30 minutes after the session ended.

The Associated Press reported "tens of thousands" attended a march on the highway between Sakhir and the capital, Manama. The police reportedly fired stun grenades and tear gas at a small, breakaway group of protesters.

Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric said during Friday prayers that the kingdom's rulers have clamped down on dissenters ahead of the grand prix "as if we're entering a war", but Ecclestone remained adamant that the country's issues are being exaggerated.

"We're not here to get involved in politics. If we weren't here, nobody would talk about Bahrain. Other countries are much higher up the list of places you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things because they are more important than here," he said.

"I can't call this race off. It is nothing to do with us, the race. We are here, we have an agreement to be here and we are here. The national sporting authority in this country can ask the FIA if they want to call the race off."

Jean Todt, the president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, was due to arrive in the kingdom last night, yet calls were intensifying from abroad for an 11th-hour cancellation.

Ed Miliband, Britain's Labour party leader, called for the race to be abandoned saying it sends the wrong message, but David Cameron, the prime minister, said it is "a matter for Formula One", adding: "It's important that peaceful protests are allowed to go on."

Sheikh Salman reiterated he has no issue with peaceful protests in the country, but said cancelling the race would only encourage extremists.

"It was only a few politicians who made those comments and it certainly doesn't represent the entire British political system," he said. "Cancelling the race just empowers extremists."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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