Feb 18 (Reuters) - Bahrain is hoping for a near-record turnout at this year’s Formula One Grand Prix despite continued violent unrest and political turmoil in the Gulf kingdom.
The 2011 race was cancelled after a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests but last year’s went ahead despite international pressure on the sport not to go and concerns for the safety of teams and personnel.
Organisers said in a statement on Monday that they had started their official 60-day countdown to the April 21 race at the Sakhir circuit under the slogan “Imagine Your Moment”.
“There is always a special moment or two for whoever attends the Bahrain Grand Prix, be it on the track or off of it, and we would like all the fans to ‘Imagine Your Moment’ and feel the excitement of our upcoming Grand Prix,” declared circuit chief executive Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
Last year’s grand prix took place under the more controversial slogan ‘UniF1ed - one nation in celebration”, which drew accusations that the island’s authorities were using the race to make a political statement.
The Bahrain International Circuit said last year’s race attracted “up to 70,000 people” and they expected to exceed that due to the growing popularity of the sport in the Middle East.
“BIC hopes to come close to matching its biggest-ever turnout to the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend of 100,000 fans in 2010,” the statement said.
The Grand Prix will be the fourth round of the 19-race championship and is the biggest sporting event hosted by the strategically-placed country that serves as a base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Two people were killed on Thursday on the second anniversary of the uprising to demand democratic reforms, with the unrest continuing into Saturday when hundreds of stone-throwing youths clashed with police firing teargas.
The Sunni Muslim-dominated government accuses opposition groups demanding more democracy of being linked to Shi‘ite power Iran. New talks between the two sides to try to end the political deadlock began on Feb. 10. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Mark Meadows)