MANAMA (Reuters) - Formula One left Bahrain on Monday with commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone talking of a five-year extension to the race contract and the possibility of switching it to the start of the season next year.
“I feel they do a super job and we’re more than happy to give them a new contract for five years. I don’t see any problems,” the 82-year-old billionaire told Reuters at the Sakhir circuit.
Bahrain is the most controversial race on the calendar due to concerns about alleged human rights abuses after a bloody crackdown on a 2011 anti-government uprising in the tiny Gulf kingdom.
The race was cancelled in 2011 but the last two have proceeded without incident, despite regular protests and clashes between police and demonstrators in mainly Shi’ite villages far removed from the circuit and organisers are planning for the long term. The current contract runs to 2016.
“We’re committed to motorsports, and F1 especially,” said Bahrain International Circuit chairman Zayed Alzayani after Sunday’s race. “We were the first race in the Middle East and we call ourselves the home of motorsport in the Middle East.
“We truly believe that in every sense of those words, so we are here for the long term ... maybe we can sign something this year.
“We had a race last year, and we had a race just finished and we will have a race for the years to come,” he added. “We are now developing the grassroots karting and an academy of open wheel racing to look to the future.”
Australia currently hosts the current season-opener with a highly popular race in Melbourne, while Bahrain is the fourth of 19 races this year.
It is no longer the sole race in the Middle East, with Abu Dhabi’s day-to-night grand prix under the Yas Marina floodlights becoming a more popular and glamorous destination with many sponsors towards the end of the year.
Bahrain has twice before hosted the opening round and officials have made no secret of their desire to return to the coveted slot, with its higher profile for a worldwide television audience.
Ecclestone has been supportive of the idea, despite some tongue-in-cheek comments at the weekend suggesting that the Bahrain authorities had been “stupid in a lot of ways” to host the race because of the platform it gave to opponents.
“It’s on the table,” said Alzayani of the date change.
“For us, we’re ready any day of the year, but we will have to see how it fits with logistics, other dates, other countries hosting and if there are conflicts with any other events they may have.
“We’ve had the first race before, and by July or August we will get a better picture as to where we will lie on next year’s calendar.”
Bahrain could be attractive logistically to teams because they would be able to test at the circuit in dry conditions before the start of the season and leave equipment in place.
Editing by Peter Rutherford