The Bahraini government has said it is “confident” today’s Grand Prix will not be disrupted by continuing clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and security forces.
Violent disturbances have been intensifying in recent days with around 50,000 anti-government protesters gathering around the capital Manama, just 25 miles away from where the controversial race meeting is under way.
Opponents have fought pitched battles with security officials, with claims surfacing yesterday that protester Salah Habib Abbas, 37, was killed by shotgun pellets fired by riot police on a rooftop during an overnight raid.
Despite the ongoing violence, Fahad al Binali, spokesman for the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority, said measures were in place to prevent any disruption to the controversial Formula One event.
He told the BBC: “Guaranteeing is difficult, but we have the best measures in place. I’m very confident and assure everybody about safety.”
Mr al Binali said he was “surprised” some protesters had campaigned against the race, saying it had provided them with “a platform” to a global audience.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday spoke to the foreign minister of Bahrain to express the Government’s “concern” about the violence.
He called on the Bahraini authorities for “restraint in dealing with protests including during the Formula One race” and urged “further progress in implementing political reforms”.
Meanwhile Mercedes and McLaren team bosses Ross Brawn and Martin Whitmarsh criticised British politicians for what they believe is a belated stance on the grand prix.
Mr Brawn said: “I find it very frustrating that politicians in the UK were saying we should withdraw once we got here. Why didn’t they say anything beforehand?”
He went on: “For somebody to try and make Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton determine the foreign policy of the country is wrong.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has resisted pressure to call for the cancellation of the event, insisting it was a matter for the F1 authorities.
Petrol bombs have been hurled at security officials, tyres set ablaze and anti-grand prix graffiti daubed on walls in ugly scenes which have marred the Gulf kingdom in recent days.
Meanwhile, riot police have used rounds of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse throngs of protesters who are demanding democracy and the cancellation of the race.
After news of Mr Abbas’s death on the outskirts of Manama emerged, Jean Todt, president of the F1’s governing body the FIA, remained adamant his conscience was clear and the reputation of the sport remained intact.
He said: “I am sorry about what has been reported. I am not sure all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country.
“But I feel F1 is very strong. It is a very strong brand, and all the people among the teams to whom I have been speaking are very happy.”
He insisted he was comfortable with the decision to remain in Bahrain despite months of political unrest and the regime’s crackdown on demonstrators.
“To say there has not been some controversy around what has happened in Bahrain would be wrong from my side. Yes, there are certain problems. Yes there are some protests – because it is a democratic country and protests are allowed,” he said.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa claimed that cancelling the race would “empower extremists”.
He added: “For those of us trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, to get people working together. It allows us to celebrate our nation.”
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone had earlier insisted it was down to the Bahrainis to cancel their grand prix.
Amnesty International said human rights violations are continuing in the Gulf kingdom despite government promises that the country is on the road to reform.
In a recent report, the campaign group said security forces were still using excessive and unnecessary force against anti-government protesters.
The 2011 race was cancelled as international criticism grew over the bloodshed and the Foreign Office has advised British motor racing fans against travelling to this year’s event.
On the track German Sebastian Vettel sits in pole position for today’s race after grabbing top spot in qualifying. Lewis Hamilton was forced to settle for second, with Mark Webber and Jenson Button on the second row in third and fourth respectively.