Dubai: The Bahrain Grand Prix (GP) returns this week to the divided Gulf nation, where two-time world champion 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 Sunday's race — cancelled last year due to anti-government protests that have left nearly 50 dead — was made last week after Formula One boss 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 near-daily clashes between security forces and protesters.
On Wednesday, security forces fired stun grenades at anti-government protesters who swarmed into a cultural exhibition for Bahrain's Formula One race, setting off street battles and sending visitors fleeing for cover. The demonstration was the most direct attempt by protesters to bring their demands for an end to the near monopoly on power by the island nation's Sunni monarchy into events linked to Sunday's race.
"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," said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "We need this regime to be punished for the crimes it has committed in the past year and half."
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 percent last year 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 sewing 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. "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," said Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as he toured the Bahrain International Circuit on Tuesday.
He owns the rights to the grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces. But 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 in the past week.
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. Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, 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 this year. He has had only one podium finish — a second in Australia. He finished fifth in China after qualifying 11th and finished out of the points altogether after a collision with back-marker Narain Karthikeyan dropped him to 11th place.
That is in stark contrast to last season 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 the German insisted the season was not lost and he was looking forward to the challenges that Bahrain offers.
"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," Vettel said. "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."
Ferrari, too, will be looking to get their season back on track in Bahrain. Alonso failed to capitalise on his unexpected Malaysian win with a strong performance in China, with the Spaniard placing ninth and team-mate Felipe Massa finishing 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 admitted cannot be fixed overnight.
"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," Alonso said. "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."
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 and seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher showed signs that his comeback may finally be bearing fruit. He finished third in qualifying and moved up to the front row when Hamilton, who qualified second, was penalised for a gearbox change. But the German retired on the 13th lap after his right front wheel was improperly fitted in the first pit stop.