Battle in Bahrain!

Formula One returns to Bahrain this weekend for what promises to be a scorcher of a Grand Prix with four teams vying for the win, a year after unrest in the island kingdom overshadowed events on track.

A protestor holds a petrol bomb as he runs for cover from teargas fired by riot police in the village of Sanabis yesterday, while Formula One drivers

Last year, Formula One headed to Bahrain amid an atmosphere of tension, as a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the country — part of the Arab Spring revolution — prompted calls for the race to be scrapped for the second year running. Misgivings over the running of the race grew after some members of the Force India team were caught up in a confrontation between protestors and police, with a molotov cocktail landing near the vehicle taking them back to their hotel.

And while unrest has continued in the run up to this year’s race, even the main opposition group has welcomed the race as an opportunity to draw the attention of the global media to its demand for democratic reform, calling on protestors to step up peaceful protests in the run up to the GP. “I am calling on people to share peaceful protests to send a message to the world about our demand for peaceful democratic reform.

“I am against violence. Our protest is to take place today, tomorrow and on Friday. It is not against the race itself,” Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the opposition bloc told Reuters on Wednesday.  In the paddock though it seemed to be business as usual.

Alonso in third spot
Fernando Alonso’s dominant win in the last race in China catapulted the Spaniard to third in the championship behind Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen and only nine points cover the top three heading into Sunday’s race. Four teams have stood on the podium in the first three races, and Ferrari, Lotus, Mercedes and Red Bull are once again likely to be vying for the win.

Attend a press conference at the Bahrain International Circuit in Manama. Pics/AFP

Ferrari displayed strong race pace in Australia and China, with Alonso finishing last weekend’s race10 seconds ahead of Raikkonen with pace to spare. But the double world champion cautioned against calling the Ferrari the car to beat.

“We still don’t have the advantage from the car that people try to see after one victory. We need to keep improving and need to be a little bit faster. There are some new pieces coming for this race, there are also some new components coming for Barcelona and Monaco, so hopefully in the next month, month-and-a-half we can be at the level of the best cars,” Alonso told reporters in the Sakhir paddock.

Conditions in the race —run around a track in the desert — will be hot and tyres are once again likely to decide the race, a situation that could favour Lotus. The Enstone-based team’s car tends to look after its tyres better than its rivals and the team scored one of their best results of the season in Bahrain last year, with both cars finishing on the podium.

“I have no idea, I think there’s four teams and this has been all the races more or less,” Raikkonen, aiming for his first Bahrain win this weekend, told reporters.  “I have no idea — we might be good, we might not be good and until we run tomorrow we don’t really know.”  

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