F1 drivers stay focused despite Force India scare in Bahrain

Attention in paddock moves towards practice as teams settle at the Bahrain International Circuit.

Sebastian Vettel, centre, is looking forward to getting on with the job of driving his Red Bull Racing car in practice in Bahrain.
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SAKHIR // After 14 months of uncertainty, Formula One's 12 race teams will take to the track this morning for the opening practice session of the beleaguered Bahrain Grand Prix.

They will do so, however, to a backdrop of safety fears after two Force India staff requested to fly home following an incident involving a team hire car that was caught up in clashes between police and anti-government protesters.

The England-based marque said yesterday that no staff were hurt in the incident, in which the team's 4x4 was delayed by a firebomb while travelling from Sakhir International Circuit to the team's base in Manama, the capital, on Wednesday night. Tear gas fired by the police is believed to have entered the car.

The team refused to identify the two members of staff, but they are believed to be the performance engineer of the Scottish driver Paul di Resta and a contracted radio controller.

While the radio controller was travelling in the car, the engineer had previously raised concerns about visiting the kingdom.

The German driver Nico Hulkenburg, whose engineer will analyse the data of both Force India cars this weekend, said "it is obviously not right" that teams should have to fear for their safety this weekend.

"We are here to race," he said from the paddock, which was a picture of peace, in contrast to scenes in Manama where police fired tear gas and stun grenades at anti-F1 protesters.

"The F1 business is about entertainment, and these sort of things should not really be happening to us. I am not a politician, I am a Formula 1 driver, but it should not really be happening, should it?

"It is not good that we have to worry about it: that is the way it is now, and let's see and hope that the rest of the weekend is good and calm."

On-track action today will be the first time F1 cars have taken to the Bahraini asphalt in more than two years; last season's race was cancelled following ongoing protests against the country's ruling family.

Thirty minutes after the second practice finishes this afternoon, a protest march is scheduled to take place on the Zallaq Highway, about three kilometres from the circuit.

With protestors promising "days of rage", race organisers quickly moved to quell concerns by putting out a statement affirming their confidence that "all the usual precautions are being taken around the track to ensure the level of security is maintained".

Although assurances have been provided by protest leaders that no one in F1 will be targeted, the majority of teams are leaving the circuit in plain clothes to avoid detection.

Drivers have so far refused to be drawn into the ongoing issues, but all maintain they feel safe.

Sergio Perez, the Sauber driver, arrived in the kingdom on Monday and spent time at the beach with a friend who lives here.

"Bahrain, I have no issues with anything; it's the same as it was last time I was here," said Kimi Raikkonen, the Lotus driver who last raced at Sakhir in 2009.

"Everybody is racing and I am OK with it. For me, it is just like any other race weekend; nothing has really changed."

Things will change if race sponsors heed the advice of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Bahrain, British MPs who have written to 14 international companies urging they withdraw their backing.

Andy Slaughter, a Labour MP and the group chairman, called the decision to race in the kingdom "very silly", adding: "We sincerely hope you will rethink your associations with the Bahrain Grand Prix and decide to curtail your sponsorship of the race at Sakhir."

Slaughter also said: "Nobody can deny the problems we had last year in Bahrain are continuing. I think that's very clear. There is no more reason for going ahead than last year. It is naive to say [it's only about sport] … even if you're not interested in the wider political situation there, there are still humanitarian issues here."

Sebastian Vettel, the reigning champion, said he was aware of the Force India incident and the troubles away from the paddock, but was generally relaxed as he had not witnessed anything first-hand.

"Being in the paddock it seems to be no problem," he said. "Outside of the paddock, maybe there is a risk, but I think there is a risk everywhere we go.

"I think it's not a big problem and I'm happy once we start testing tomorrow because then we worry about the stuff that really matters - tyre temperatures, cars."

Jenson Button arrived only yesterday after spending two days in Dubai and said his focus would be on racing when the engines start today.

He added, however, that he and his colleagues are not ignorant to the ongoing unrest.

"When you are in the car, you don't think of anything else but driving around the circuit trying to feel the car and do the best job you can," he said.

"But when you are outside the car, of course you are asked questions, of course you understand what is going on around you. Some of us are intelligent human beings."

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& Gary Meenaghan