LONDON (Reuters) - Bahrain Grand Prix organisers called off Formula One’s March 13 season-opener on Monday after a week of anti-government protests that left seven dead and hundreds injured.
While the authorities hoped for a possible re-scheduling of the country’s biggest sporting event, a final pre-season test organised for March 3 at the Sakhir circuit was cancelled outright.
The 12 teams will instead return to Spain’s Barcelona circuit between March 8-11 after wrapping up a session there on Monday.
The decision to postpone the race, already considered a foregone conclusion in F1 circles, meant the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 27 becomes the first event on what was planned to be a record 20-round calendar.
“The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) today announced that the Kingdom of Bahrain would withdraw from hosting this year’s F1 Grand Prix race so that the country can focus on its process of national dialogue,” said a statement by the Bahrain Circuit authorities.
They added that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who is also deputy supreme commander of Bahrain’s armed forces, had told Formula One’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone in a telephone call.
“At the present time the country’s entire attention is focussed on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain,” said the crown prince.
“Although Bernie Ecclestone had graciously made clear that a decision on the race was entirely Bahrain’s to make and was not yet required, we felt it was important for the country to focus on immediate issues of national interest and leave the hosting of Bahrain’s Formula One race to a later date.”
Formula One’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), team bosses and drivers said they supported the move.
No decision was made on any re-scheduling, with the situation in Manama still tense and thousands of protesters camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has asked his son, the crown prince, to conduct a dialogue with all parties.
“I hope that F1 and our friends around the world will understand our decision at this difficult time,” said Bahrain International Circuit chairman Zayed Alzayani.
Ecclestone, key to Bahrain becoming the first country in the Middle East to host a Formula One race in 2004, sympathised.
“It is sad that Bahrain has had to withdraw from the race, we wish the whole nation well as they begin to heal their country,” the 80-year-old said.
“The hospitality and warmth of the people of Bahrain is a hallmark of the race there, as anyone who has been at a Bahrain Grand Prix will testify. We look forward to being back in Bahrain soon.”
Christian Horner, team boss of champions Red Bull, agreed.
“It’s obviously a great shame for Bahrain but totally understandable with the problems they face,” he told Reuters after team bosses had discussed the planned test.
“It is clear that to race in Bahrain at this time would be inappropriate given the current circumstances,” said Williams chairman Adam Parr.
“We now look forward to a season debut in Melbourne and returning to Bahrain when it is right to do so.”
The race at Sakhir could be slotted in at the end of the calendar but that also poses problems, with the final grand prix currently scheduled for Brazil on November 27 after a penultimate round in Abu Dhabi on November 13.
Staging a race back-to-back with Abu Dhabi and pushing Brazil back to December might make sense geographically and logistically, although that would steal some of the thunder from Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit.
Bahrain was the first race to be called off since the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida in Japan in 1995 had to be rescheduled due to a major earthquake in the region.
Editing by Kevin Fylan and Ed Osmond