LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One has no concerns about this month’s Bahrain Grand Prix becoming a target for anti-government protesters, commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone said on Friday.
The race at the Sakhir desert circuit was cancelled in 2011 when a Shi‘ite-led pro-democracy uprising was crushed and at least 35 people - activists put the tally far higher - were killed.
Last year’s grand prix, the biggest sporting event in the U.S.-allied Gulf island kingdom and watched by hundreds of millions around the world, went ahead controversially amid tight security and against a backdrop of burning tyres and riot police firing teargas at petrol-bomb throwing protesters in Shi‘ite villages.
Bahrain’s opposition and government resumed reconciliation talks in February for the first time since July 2011 and, even if little progress has been reported, Ecclestone felt the situation had improved.
“I haven’t had any negative reports from anybody there,” the 82-year-old British billionaire told Reuters as he prepared for a double header with the Chinese Grand Prix on April 14 and Bahrain on the 21st.
”Somebody who actually lives there came to see me yesterday and said everything’s very normal.
“I think they (both sides) are talking now anyway... so I don’t think they’ll upset the talks by making protests,” added Ecclestone. “It didn’t help them last year, so if they had any brains they’d just get on with their talks.”
Demonstrators have continued small protests on an almost daily basis to demand equality and a constitutional monarchy in the tiny kingdom ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
At least 10 civilians and several policemen were injured last month during protests to mark the second anniversary of the arrival of forces from neighbouring Saudi Arabia which helped crush the uprising.
Police said the demonstrators had barricaded roads and torched vehicles. Pictures published in the foreign media have shown slogans daubed on walls calling for a boycott of the race.
Asked whether there was a risk of the race being targeted more directly after the protests and international pressure failed to stop it going ahead last year, Ecclestone said: ”No, I think quite the opposite.
“No concerns, none at all,” he added.
Ecclestone said he would again be in Bahrain for the grand prix, fourth round of the 19 race season, and praised local organisers for their efforts.
He assured them that Bahrain, the first country to host a grand prix in the Middle East and on the calendar since 2004, had a long-term future in F1 despite Abu Dhabi’s glittering floodlit race now being a much more popular fixture with both teams and sponsors.
“Yes, yes, absolutely,” he said. “Everything that is there is as far as we are concerned good. They do a very, very good job of the race, the whole support from the top is good. No problems.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar