MANAMA, April 19 — Sunday’s Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix could be boring or exciting but it will not be normal.
Even if protests in the Gulf island kingdom remain out of sight of the teams and drivers in their luxury hotels, with daily life in Manama also seeming very much the same as ever, the talk surrounding the race has been as much about torture and teargas as tyres and tactics.
Anti-government protesters, determined to show it is not business as normal in the country after a crushed uprising last year, are planning “days of rage” directed at the race while security forces have rounded up dozens of activists.
A report by Amnesty International said this week that it had received credible reports of the use of torture in Bahrain despite promises of reform.
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who last week brushed off questions about the unrest by saying there was nothing happening and all the teams were happy to go and race, has repeatedly said his sport does not get involved in a host country’s politics or religion.
The 12 teams, many if not all believed to have been reluctant for the race to go ahead after last year’s was cancelled due to the unrest, have stuck firmly to that message with bland pre-race previews focusing solely on sporting and technical matters.
After three separate winners in three races, and with Mercedes celebrating Nico Rosberg’s first win last weekend in China and their first as a works team since 1955, there is plenty to look forward to on the track.
There should also be plenty of excitement after a race in Shanghai that saw the top cars behind Rosberg scrapping for points and places as if competing in a junior series with everyone tightly bunched.
A fourth different winner in four races cannot be discounted.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton came away leading the championship, but has yet to win this year, while his team mate Jenson Button could be the favourite at a desert circuit that has yet to see a McLaren victory since its debut in 2004.
Button won with Brawn in 2009 and feels the high temperatures will be just the boost he needs.
“It’s a massive thing for us, for me especially. I don’t know why I can’t work tyres in cold conditions. It must be the way I drive,” he told British reporters after finishing second in Shanghai.
“I’ve tried driving differently but it doesn’t work. Heat really helps me,” said the 2009 champion.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso has the best record in Bahrain, although two of his wins came with Renault, while the Italian team has gone well there in the past.
That may not be the case this time around, with Ferrari struggling to get performance out of the car other than in rain-hit Malaysia.
Hamilton has had three third places in a row and can be counted on to be in the mix, possibly with a third pole in four races.
Red Bull’s double champion Sebastian Vettel is also hungry for a first win of the season, while Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher showed in Shanghai that he has still has what it takes to get on the front row.
“No-one is dominant,” said McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh, whose team lead Red Bull by 24 points. “This is going to be a season where you have to take your chances.
“We’ve had three imperfect races, but now it’s very clear you have to concentrate on not making mistakes, developing the car, doing a good job. It has the hallmarks of what could be an extraordinary season.”
The smooth circuit has been reconfigured since the last race in Bahrain, going back to a shorter layout used in 2009 which cuts out a large slow speed section and the number of corners. — Reuters