Mercedes chief assuages fears over Bahrain Grand Prix

Leading figures say situation has improved but letter threat and rally plants seed of doubt.

epa02771825 (FILE) A file picture dated 14 March 2010 shows a man cleaning the handrail on the Sakhir Tower at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain. The Formula One teams' organization FOTA on 08 June 2011 said that they were not in favour of a later date of the Bahrain Grand Prix, following the controversial decision to reschedule the race for later this year. The season-opener was cancelled on 13 March 2011 after unrest in Bahrain caused the death of several protestors.  EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL *** Local Caption ***  02771825.jpg
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MELBOURNE // The team principal of Mercedes-GP said he hopes Formula One can help unite Bahrain when the race returns to the Kingdom next month.

Last year's Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled following civil unrest that left 35 people dead, but it has returned to the F1 calendar for this season and is scheduled to take place April 20-22 at Sakhir International Circuit, about 20km from Manama.

Fresh doubt regarding safety in the Gulf state was cast last week when a large-scale anti-government rally took place near to the capital. Opposition leaders estimated more than 100,000 people turned out on March 9, making it the biggest protest since the Bahraini authorities began their clampdown more than a year ago.

The rally ended peacefully last week but a protest group in Bahrain has written to Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone threatening to do "everything in our capacity" to ensure next month's race in the Kingdom is a failure.

Ecclestone, the Formula One chief, has repeatedly said the race will go ahead and F1's leading figures yesterday said they are ready and willing to travel to the country.

"We want to go there," Ross Brawn said on the sidelines of the Australian Grand Prix, which takes place tomorrow. "It's been a great place to race in the past. It has its troubles, we hope those troubles are largely behind them and if racing can help bring things together then we should try to do it."

He added: "We need to monitor the situation, try to make a judgement. People who've been there are telling us the situation's much, much better than it was 12 months ago. So, if Formula One can help to improve the situation then that would be a great thing for us to do."

The letter from the Coalition Youth of Feb 14 Revolution says the situation "has not eased but exacerbated".

Dated February 28, the letter reads: "We, in The Coalition of the youth of 14 Feb revolution, address you this letter to say clearly that we do not accept the distortion of this popular sport for the sake of obliging a falling dictatorship.

"We demand that you reverse your decision and call off the F1 race in Bahrain, else we will have no choice but to do everything in our capacity to ensure the failure of the race rather than see it stained with blood and shame".

Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, visited the country in December and returned to the UK advocating the Kingdom's return to the calendar for this season.

When asked yesterday by The National whether he believed the race should still go ahead, however, he said he was no longer so sure.

"Everyone hopes they find a resolution to the situation, not just because it would be better for the grand prix, but because it is clearly a high-pressure state of affairs at the moment," Hill said.

"There has got to be some change, it's got to change for the better and I hope it does.

"At the time I went, it looked as if things had seemed to improve, but things now appear to have stalled a bit. They have had demonstrations of 100,000 people recently. I think there is enormous pressure there for a change and it may affect the grand prix."

A threat to security could have an effect on Formula One teams' insurance coverage, Hill said. Without insurance, the marques would be forced to withdraw.

"You must remember we see it from a long way off; we see it through the prism of the European press and from a distance there appears to be a lot of protest, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is not in a condition to have a grand prix."

This year's race is being billed as "Unified: One Nation In Celebration" and Hill said the final decision lies with the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the sport's governing body. "Everyone is watching what the FIA will do with it," he said.

"It is very much in the hands of Jean Todt [the FIA president] and Bernie; they set the criteria by which they will agree to return. At the moment the green light is on and we are going back."