LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and team bosses joined Bahrain officials on Wednesday in a strong show of support for the decision to race in the troubled Gulf kingdom next month.
Red Bull principal Christian Horner, whose team are reigning champions, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, Mercedes chief executive Nick Fry, Frank Williams and Ecclestone all attended a media lunch hosted by Bahrain circuit officials and the country’s ambassador to Britain.
Tyre supplier Pirelli and the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) were also represented in a turnout that left no doubt about their commitment to a race that activists would like to see cancelled.
Last year’s race was scrapped due to the uprising in Bahrain but Ecclestone was firm about this year’s going ahead, despite continuing daily protests and at least 33 deaths since June.
“(People) are saying things they don’t understand,” he told Reuters.
“People say to me ‘Oh there’s not going to be a race’. I say ‘How do you know?’ ‘Ah, we know because we saw, we read or we heard’ or something like that. It’s all nonsense,” said the 81-year-old billionaire.
“Forget the financial side, it’s nothing to do with that at all,” he added when asked about the commercial importance of the race to Formula One’s revenues.
“These people were brave enough at the beginning to start an event in that part of the world. That’s it. We’ll be there as long as they want us.”
Ecclestone doubted security would be an issue, despite the April 22 race being seen as an obvious target for anti-government demonstrators.
“I‘m absolutely sure that whatever is necessary to do will be done. Probably not necessary,” he said. “We’ve never been concerned about security in the past. I don’t understand why we should be now.”
Zayed Alzayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit, said it would be business as normal and laughed off a suggestion that violence could tarnish the event.
”I have been mugged in New York twice and I still go,“ he said. ”My brother was mugged out of Harrods (department store). Someone stuck a knife to him and took off his Rolex. He comes to London 10 times a year. These incidents can happen anywhere.
“I don’t think that will happen,” he added when asked about more serious attacks.
“We are not witnessing that in Bahrain. There hasn’t been any assaults on foreigners...maybe you are referring to the British guy who got his fingers chopped off, but that was an isolated incident.”
The grand prix is Bahrain’s largest sporting event and the only one with global reach. Alzayani hoped it would be a catalyst for unity and reconciliation.
He read out a letter from Britain’s ambassador to Bahrain, Iain Lindsey, backing the decision for the race to go ahead. A majority of the 12 Formula One teams are based in Britain while Bahrain was a British protectorate until 1971.
“It is in nobody’s interests that Bahrain should be denied the much-needed financial injection which the grand prix will bring to the economy,” wrote Lindsey.
Alzayani said the race contributed some $220 million directly to the local economy and $400-500 million indirectly.
“I remember last year on June 3 when we were reinstated I went to a wedding party and (the bride‘s) grandfather, an 80-year-old taxi driver, came up and hugged me and said ‘I make more in that week than in three months normally’. This is how much it touches the average citizen,” he added.
The Bahrain circuit sacked 29 employees last year after the uprising but Alzayani said 25 had been reinstated.
Horner said the teams, who made clear their reluctance to going last year, were ready to race.
“Bahrain is on the calendar. The FIA has obviously stayed very closely informed of the situation. When you enter the championship at the beginning of the year, you enter it to do all of the races,” he told reporters.
”We have always been treated well in Bahrain previously and we will go there and do our very best to put on a good show.
“We have had reassurance from the governing body and we have to trust in their judgement,” added Horner. “Personnel safety is something we take very seriously but I think all of the relevant precautions will already be in place.”
Editing by Clare Fallon