Clashes escalate as Bahrain race looms

FEARS were growing last night that Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix will be overshadowed by violent clashes after Formula One teams became directly embroiled in the political unrest for the first time.

Two members of the Force India team asked to leave the troubled Gulf state yesterday after a car transporting staff from the racetrack was caught up in a petrol bomb clash between protesters and police.

Force India driver Nico Hulkenburg said he felt they “shouldn’t have been put in this position”, while his team-mate, the Scot Paul di Resta, called it “an uncomfortable situation”.

Further protests, which until now have been restricted to cities and towns, are planned for nearby the remote Bahrain International Circuit today and on race day, raising the prospect of disruption to the event.

Formula One chiefs have repeatedly played down concerns, while organisers remain defiant that the grand prix, cancelled last year owing to security concerns, will go ahead, despite conceding further trouble was expected.

“I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t be staged,” said circuit chief Zayed Alzayani. “Whatever the country is going through is mainly on the political side. The race will benefit the economy and show that, even in times of differences, we can find common ground.” He added: “I think there probably will be more protests.”

Bahrain authorities had hoped staging the race would show the country is over the upheaval that has dogged it for more than a year, but there appears a growing danger that it will merely draw attention to the power struggle.

The most worrying incident this week occurred when a car carrying four Force India mechanics from the Sakhir circuit to their hotel passed through a battle between demonstrators and police.

Tear gas entered the car and the driver fled amid flames caused by petrol bombs. The team’s staff escaped unhurt. The car is not thought to have been targeted, although protesters have expressed anger at the grand prix.

Teams have publicly refused to blame Formula One chiefs for pressing ahead, but driver Hulkenburg said: “We shouldn’t have been put in this position. The F1 business is about entertainment and these sort of things should not really be happening to us.”

Force India have pledged to stay and race, with practice sessions starting today. It comes as foreign reporters are said to have been blocked from entering Bahrain, while a cross-party MPs group has called on sponsors to boycott the race.

Stun grenades were fired at protesters onWednesday at a cultural exhibition to mark the grand prix.