| MANAMA, April 21
MANAMA, April 21 While demonstrators hurled
petrol bombs at the police a half hour's drive away, the only
smoke that reached the Bahrain Grand Prix paddock on the eve of
Sunday's race was laid on by the organisers at the "relaxed
Formula One's Bahrain experience has been a tale of two
parallel universes, with the drivers and team bosses staying in
luxury hotels and safely sheltered inside their paddock bubble
of familiar routine, while running battles are fought on the
streets and in villages.
Protesters, mainly from the Shi'ite Muslim majority who say
they are oppressed by a Sunni ruling family, have been clashing
with police nightly, denouncing the Formula One Grand Prix here
as a lavish spectacle glorifying a repressive government.
On Saturday, the body of a demonstrator was discovered on a
rooftop after a battle at which witnesses said police fired
birdshot at crowds. His funeral could be held on Sunday, setting
the stage for riots on the day of the race itself.
Marchers have held up banners depicting Formula One race car
drivers as riot police, bashing protesters.
But for those within the sport's entourage who have not
ventured out to see a different reality, talk of petrol bombs,
death and torture might as well be from another planet.
"THE STUFF THAT REALLY MATTERS: TYRE TEMPERATURES"
Red Bull's world champion Sebastian Vettel said shortly
after arrival on Thursday that he thought much of what was being
reported was hype.
He looked forward to getting in the car and dealing with
the "stuff that really matters - tyre temperatures, cars."
Added the German, who will start the race on pole position:
"I think generally being in the paddock it seems to be no
At Saturday evening's barbecue, rows of palm trees down the
middle of the paddock were lit up with red and white lights in
the colours of the Bahraini flag. Groups of Formula One people
chilled out under the stars with a glass of wine.
There was traditional music for anyone in the mood, with
work over for the day and the cars locked up until Sunday
After the race on Sunday night, teams will pack up and head
directly for the airport for flights in the early hours back to
their European bases or holiday locations.
Not all of the Formula One family were spared glimpses of
the violence. A few employees of the Sauber and Force India
teams were caught up in petrol bomb incidents earlier in the
week as they headed back to their Manama hotels.
Members of the media were able to get out to cover the
unrest, although the government denied visas to journalists who
normally cover Mid-East politics rather than motor sports.
Scores of police cars line the broad highway on the morning
30km drive from the skyscrapers of central Manama to the track
in the dusty south. But it has been perfectly possible for most
to travel to and from the circuit without seeing more than one
or two armoured vehicles and encountering no demonstrations.
With the demonstrations mainly confined to Shi'ite areas
outside the city centre, much of Manama is experiencing business
as usual, with people going to shopping malls and tourists
sunning themselves by hotel pools.
Inside the race circuit, behind the fences and past the
electronic turnstiles that keep out anyone without a pass,
Formula One is on familiar territory - apart from the heat, palm
trees and a reduced presence in the media centre.
Teams have gone about their regular activities with drivers
holding media briefings and discussing tyres, tactics and
Attempts to get them to discuss the political situation have
largely failed, although team principals did say they felt
"comfortable" with security measures when asked by an official
questioner at a news conference organised by the governing
International Automobile Federation (FIA).
FIA President Jean Todt broke a 10-day media silence on
Saturday to say that he was sorry "about what has been reported"
rather than expressing any doubts about giving the green light
to the race at a time when the Gulf kingdom was still undergoing
so much turmoil.
"I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to
the reality of what is happening in this country," added the
There was also some resentment within the paddock at the
intervention of politicians, including British lawmakers who
called for a boycott by teams and sponsors at the 11th hour.
"We were committed to this race and after the race we will
make a proper judgement of what happened and come to a
conclusion," Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn told reporters.
"I find it very frustrating that politicians in the UK were
saying that we should withdraw once we got here. Why didn't they
say anything beforehand?"
Martin Whitmarsh, whose McLaren team is half owned by
Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat and who has Britain's
2008 and 2009 world champions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button
as his drivers, agreed.
"I don't think it's helpful to wake up this morning and hear
we shouldn't be here when we are already here, so I endorse what
Ross says," he said on Saturday.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Peter Graff)