MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain is a safe place to race and this weekend’s grand prix will go ahead as planned, Formula One’s governing body and commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone said in a joint statement on Friday.
The short press release, surprising only in being issued so late in the day, came after calls from some British politicians and others for the race to be cancelled due to human rights concerns.
The race was called off in 2011 after the crushing of an anti-government uprising in the Gulf island kingdom left at least 35 dead. There have been regular clashes between police and protesters since then.
Drivers were already out on track for first practice at the desert Sakhir circuit, after a day of routine media activities on Thursday, and organisers expect a crowd of 25,000 for Sunday’s race.
The statement said the world governing body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), and Formula One Management (FOM) “wish to jointly confirm their belief that the Bahrain GP should go ahead this weekend”.
It added that the FIA and FOM had received security assurances from the local promoter and the authorities.
They asked all to ”respect the desire of the teams, drivers and all those involved in the staging of the event to do the best job possible over the weekend.
“The FIA and FOM also strongly believe that sport can often be a force for good and that the staging of the Grand Prix in Bahrain will come some way in helping soothe some of the issues which have been raised in the media,” it added.
Ecclestone, 82, is in Bahrain for the race but FIA president Jean Todt is not attending.
Circuit chairman Zayed Alzayani said on Thursday that security arrangements were the same as previous years and there had been no direct threat to the track 32km south of Manama.
“We don’t feel any extra threat is upon us this year,” he told reporters.
There is a strong police presence on highways to the circuit with roadblocks on the approaches.
Last year’s race went ahead without protesters getting near to the facility, although some Force India team staff had a scare when petrol bombs exploded near their vehicle as they travelled back to their Manama hotel.
The team are at a hotel next to the track this year.
“Nobody is saying we are perfect. But things are going well compared to last year, we are in a much better situation - I‘m happy,” Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa told reporters.
Red Bull’s Australian driver Mark Webber, who was one of the most outspoken in the paddock in previous years, agreed the situation felt different.
“I think we have proved in the past that the event can go off not too badly. It’s awkward, but they’ve shown that we can have the event but there is also still one eye on what’s happening here,” he said.
Webber agreed his opposition had “probably softened off a little bit”.
“We go to a lot countries and to be honest, last year we didn’t see a huge amount that was too negative against the sport,” he added.
“As a sport, we love to do whatever we can for the fans and make sure that in the countries we go to everything is as good as possible. We can’t control everything.”
Editing by John O'Brien