The organiser of the Bahrain Grand Prix said today that the F1 personnel attending the race this weekend will be safe and claimed that 77% of the Bahraini people wanted the race to go ahead.
I had a chance to interview Zayed Al-Zayani, Chairman of Bahrain International Circuit this afternoon for BBC Radio 5 Live and asked him if he could guarantee the safety of F1 people,” Absolutely,” he said, “They have always been safe here and I think this year won’t be any different.”
Last year four Force India staff members were caught in a firebomb incident on the highway but it’s clear this year that the police have significantly tightened the security on the main highway to the circuit and at night time there are police road blocks on the way back into the downtown area, where protests might be expected to take place. Opposition groups have promised a “volcano of anger” tomorrow Friday when practice takes place.
There was an explosion in he business district on Sunday and today a protest led to firebombs being thrown at police and six people being arrested.
So far the mood in the paddock is less anxious than in 2012, with staff going about their business, coming and going from the track, nevertheless being vigilant.
There have been calls from local opposition parties and from a cross party parliamentary committee in the UK for the race to be cancelled, as it was in 2011, but as last year, the organisers as well as the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have toughed it out and insisted that the race should go ahead.
Nothing much has changed in the country since last F1 visited. There have been some discussions between government and opposition, but the outcome has been limited. Meanwhile in recent days protest groups have focussed their protests specifically against the Grand Prix. They see the race as a symbol of the ruling regime and claim that the race going ahead is intended to project an image to the world that everything is back to normal in the country after the 2011 uprising.They want to disrupt the event to show that it is not.
“We’re not 100% back to normal,” Al Zayani told me, “That’s evident because there is a dialogue going on between the government and the opposition. It’s good that the dialogue is going on. I think we’ve come a long way, there has been a lot of reform since 2011, and there is more to come.”
Last year there was unhappiness within the F1 community that the organisers used “F1” in a political context with its “UniF1ed” promotional message about the race.
This year the approach has been noticeably toned down, with no F1 reference.
Al Zayani said that the main reason that the race should go ahead was an economic one; since the troubles began tourism has been hammered and the influx of overseas money has been limited. The 2012 race brought in £180 million, he claimed.
Ecclestone is expected to attend the race, but FIA president Jean Todt has come in for criticism from some within the sport, particularly several UK newspapers, for not travelling to the event. He has issued a statement saying, “Sport and F1 can have a positive and healing effect in situations where conflict, social unrest and tensions cause distress.”
McLaren’s Jenson Button said, “I have to believe the FIA are making the right call. We have 19 races around the world and I trust their decision not to put us in danger and it is the right thing to do.
“I did not see anything last year. It is no different from 2004 in terms of what we see when we are here. But I am sure that what we see and what the Bahrainis see is two very different things.”