Bahrain motor racing chief calls on F1 to unite country… but can't guarantee safety of drivers
14:42 GMT, 27 March 2012
The president of the Automobile Federation of Bahrain has called on Formula One to help unify his country, but is unable to offer concrete guarantees over safety.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Isa Al Khalifa, who is also one of the 26 members of the FIA's World Motor Sport Council, feels Bahrain will emerge a stronger nation following next month's grand prix.
Last year's race was called off following the deaths of a number of anti-government protesters involved in violent clashes with police and the armed forces.
Boost to the country: Formula One President and CEO Bernie Ecclestone with Mohammed Al Khalifa, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit
To this day there remain pockets of resistance involved in almost daily clashes with police, with one of the primary protest groups being The Coalition Youth of the 14 Feb Revolution.
Ranging in age from 15 up to 28, the protesters often use petrol bombs, which in turn has led to police turning to tear gas, sound grenades, rubber bullets, and last week, water cannons to combat them.
It means when F1 heads to Bahrain the day after the Chinese Grand Prix from April 16, and for the remainder of that week through to the race itself on April 22, the spotlight will focus sharply on the Gulf kingdom.
'There are disturbances, and they are youths who need to be handled and led in a proper and right way,' Al Khalifa said.
Time to unite: Lewis Hamilton in practice ahead of the last Bahrain grand prix in 2010
'They need to know if they have concerns, problems, there are proper channels and procedures that can deal with them.
'They will not achieve their goals by disrupting the lives of family, friends, neighbours, or anybody who comes to the country.
'But then we've had these youths doing what they are doing since 2004.
'There is a small element of society that has unfortunately been shown a way to demonstrate in this form.
'Yes, the events of February 14 last year (the Day of Rage) inflamed matters, but we've never had an issue with Formula One, which has been visiting our country since 2004.
'People keep asking me about Bahrain, and I appreciate their apprehension, but anybody who has been there before and comes now will see there is no difference.
'It is why I'm hoping for the race to come as quickly as possible, just to let this community (in Formula One) see and feel what is really going on in Bahrain.
Good time: Jenson Button won in Bahrain while with Brawn
'I know all eyes are on us, but for me I feel there is a buzz going on in the country to rally around Formula One.
'So my message to Formula One is 'be part of unifying my country'.
'We've had our share of trouble, people have made mistakes, but it is time to reconcile, to move on and come out stronger and more united.'
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone recently suggested if the protesters wanted to make an impact all they have to do is – in a peaceful manner – block the roads to the circuit and delay the race which would get them 'more coverage than they could dream of'.
Al-Khalifa is in agreement with Ecclestone as he can understand a desire to protest, but is also urging it be done without the need to resort to violence.
Al-Khalifa said: “Bernie is right. All they have to do is go through the proper procedures and say 'we intend to do this and this'.
Safety fears: Bahrain officials cannot guarantee safety in their troubled country
'We have rallies every weekend that are authorised, so do what you have to do and stand by the side of the road and have your placards. That's no problem.
'I'm happy for them to protest, but be peaceful and orderly, without disrupting the lives of anybody around you. It's their right.'
All it takes, however, is one petrol bomb, for instance, to hit and injure, maim or kill anybody within F1 and the condemnation of Bahrain, and the sport itself for agreeing to attend in the first place, would be universal.
In defence, Al-Khalifa said: 'Any death is unfortunate or regrettable, but no, I'm not worried at all (with regard to any such incident).
'Of course, there are no guarantees in this world. You could be anywhere, even Silverstone.
'All I can guarantee you is you will be as safe as at any other grand prix.'
It means there will be no increase in security either throughout the weekend, with Al-Khalifa adding: 'No, absolutely not.
'It will be life as normal. We've never had any violence towards foreigners simply because they are foreigners or in F1.
'There is no violence towards guests of the country, and I don't think there will be any disruption or danger to anybody coming into Bahrain.'