Hamilton hopes for first victory of the season amid the violence in Bahrain
21:11 GMT, 21 April 2012
Lewis Hamilton will bid for his first
win of the Formula One season today against a backdrop of increasing
violence during human rights protests in Bahrain.
McLaren driver, narrowly leading the championship after three races,
was beaten to pole position yesterday by defending world champion
German's Red Bull team-mate, Mark Webber, was third fastest, with
Hamilton's British colleague, Jenson Button, having to settle for fourth
place on the race grid this afternoon.
Hopes for the race: Lewis Hamilton is well placed to win the Bahrain Grand Prix
With tensions in the Gulf state soaring after the death of a protestor following clashes with police on Friday night, Formula One bosses are bracing themselves for further disorder here by demonstrators who had promised 'three days of rage' over the presence of the sporting circus in their country.
A march heading in the direction of the Sakhir Circuit to coincide with the race is planned for today, although it remains to be seen how close demonstrators will be allowed to get to the track.
A heightened security presence suggests any attempt to disrupt the race will not be tolerated.
Pole position: Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing
Police cars and armoured personnel carriers will line the routes to the track, while checkpoints have been set up to search for weapons and explosives.
Despite continuing calls by politicians – Labour leader Ed Miliband among them – for the race to be called off, FIA president Jean Todt insisted yesterday that the event would go ahead.
Echoing the stance of Formula One rights holder Bernie Ecclestone and Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Todt claimed that the majority of the kingdom's population want the race to happen.
'I would be very annoyed if it was a majority of people [who are against the race],' said Todt. 'But at the most it would be 10 per cent who are anti. So do we penalise 90 per cent of the population because 10 per cent are against My answer is No. My answer is that it is a strong majority of people [who want the race].'
With the exception of Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, the drivers here have been criticised for their continued dodging of the issue of staging a race in a country where violence between police and protesters is a daily occurrence.
And Vettel did not cover himself in glory on Thursday by saying that it was time to get back to 'the stuff that really matters, like tyre temperatures' before describing the coverage of events in Bahrain as 'hype'.
Tyre temperatures did indeed prove critical yesterday, with Red Bull making their rubber work far better in the baking heat of Bahrain than in the cool conditions of China the previous week.
Vettel's ability finally to get to grips with the updated version of the RB8, having opted to use an older spec car in China, also proved pivotal to him beating Hamilton to pole position.
Politically charged: Protests against the Bahraini government continue
'It feels great and this one I will give to the team and the guys,' said Vettel. 'It wasn't an easy start to the season for us. It did not match our expectation. We worked hard on the car. The boys have not had much sleep in the last few races, so I'm happy to be on pole.'
Worrying though Red Bull's return to form may be for Hamilton and Button, the failure of Mercedes to repeat their performance in Shanghai quelled any panic that they were about to break clear.
Matters started badly for Mercedes when Michael Schumacher failed to make it out of the first phase of qualifying, a shabby lap and a problem with the rear wing consigning the seventime world champion to 18th place on the grid.
Buoyed by his pole and win double in China, Schumacher's team-mate, Nico Rosberg, had the confidence to restrict himself to one flying lap in the final phase of qualifying. But there was to be no repeat of last week's dominant showing, Rosberg having to settle for fifth as Webber briefly held top spot before being overtaken first by Vettel, then Hamilton.
While the drivers have preferred not to divert their attention from racing matters, there were suspicions that the volatile situation in Bahrain had encroached on to the track.
Leading the charge: Lewis Hamilton in action, followed by Bruno Senna
After four of their staff travelling in a hire car were forced to flee petrol bombs on Thursday night, Force India opted not to run in the afternoon practice session on Friday in order to leave the circuit before nightfall.
Ecclestone was said to be less than impressed by their decision. Force India did not feature in yesterday's television coverage, which is tightly controlled by Ecclestone's Formula One Management company.
Offering a potential explanation for the blackout, Ecclestone said: 'It could be technical but I suspect it was more to do with the Bahrain laws on no alcohol advertising. They have a whisky company prominently on the car. They should have taken it off. I will look into it.'