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Formula GUN; SCANDAL OF F1 GRAND PRIX IN BLOOD-SOAKED BAHRAIN.

Byline: MARTIN FRICKER; BYRON YOUNG

IT was the nerve-jangling moment when Formula One's big lie was violently exposed.

Out of nowhere a petrol bomb suddenly landed just yards from the crew of a British-based team as prodemocracy protesters clashed with security forces in Bahrain.

Soon the five engineers with the Force India team were choking and coughing inside their 4x4 as police responded with tear gas grenades.

Trapped between police and the protesters, they feared for their lives while just a few miles from where Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton will be competing in the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday Finally they managed to make their way back to their hotel along the jammed dual carriageway... though two of the team were so shaken up by what had happened they have flown back to Britain.

Yet just a week ago, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone was talking of "quiet and peaceful Bahrain".

Formula One might be sport but it's also a pounds 7billion industry and Bahrain's super rich rulers are major investors determined that the race goes ahead whatever might happen on the sweltering streets outside the new circuit.

Protests on this small state in the Gulf began last February when Shiite demonstrators took to the streets in their thousands.

About 70% of the 1.3million population is Shia, yet Bahrain is ruled by the Al-Khalifa family, a Sunni Muslim dynasty with strong ties to neighbouring oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

For years Shiites claim they have faced widespread discrimination and are blocked from key political or military posts. And while the Al-Khal ifa family have offered some reforms, the opposition says they fall a long way short of their demands for democracy.

So far up to 70 people have been killed in violent clashes with the security forces, while more than 1,600 protesters, including doctors and journalists have been arrested and locked-up. Activists claim up to 1,000 have simply vanished.

Human rights groups have also alleged that detainees are "systematically tortured" and UN observers have been barred by Bahraini authorities from investigating the claims.

All this begs the question: What is the Formula One bandwagon thinking about holding a Grand Prix in Bahrain? The answer lies in the links between the sport and Bahrain's rulers - links involving hundreds of millions of pounds.

In return the country's oil-rich rulers, not surprisingly, want a Grand Prix of their own. The 2011 race was scrapped because of protests, but Formula One rules state that any race cancelled two years running cannot be put back on the calendar and Bahrain has a contract which runs until 2016.

A Formula One insider explained: "The government was furious, when last year's GP was cancelled considering the money they had ploughed into F1. Bahrain's economy took a pounds 200million hit because of that decision and they made it clear it couldn't happen again."

The Bahrain royal family, headed by Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who is due to attend a Diamond Jubilee banquet hosted by the Queen in Windsor next month, has extensive interests in Formula One.

Mumtalakat Holdings, the family's sovereign wealth fund, own almost half of the British McLaren F1 team, whose drivers are Button and Hamilton.

And there are also close connections between Bahrain and Jean People like Todt, p r e s i -dent of the sport's governing body, the FIA. His son, Nicolas, together with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, own the Lotus ART GP2 team, who will also be racing in Bahrain this weekend.

Bahrain also threw their support behind Todt, 66, when he took over from Max Mosley as FIA chief in 2009.

Yesterday Force India team boss Bob Fernley insisted there was no question of the team pulling out.

He said: "Two team members have gone home and we respect that. But the British government say it is a safe environment and we have to respect that."

But a team from the Porsche SuperCup support race have pulled out due to safety concerns and TV crews from Germany and Finland have taken the unprecedented step of refusing to cover the race from Bahrain.

Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg admitted his concerns, saying: "It's not right that sort of stuff happens. But we are here to race. The F1 business is about entertainment. I'm not a politician, I am a Formula 1 driver, but it is not good that we have to worry about what's going on here."

Bahrain's security adviser, former Scotland Yard chief John Yates, has admitted that the security of the Grand Prix cannot be guaranteed He said: "I'd be a fool to sit here and say that. How can you stop some idiot who decided to run on to the track? Khadija al-Mousawi's activist husband Abdulhadi has been on hunger strike for two months. She said: "I am not angry with the government ... it's their future at stake. What makes me angry is people like Ecclestone. He decides to come to Bahrain because he thinks everyone is happy. I can assure you I'm not happy."

Her daughter Zainab al-Khawaja added: "Bringing Formula One while people are being teargassed and my father is dying in a military hospital is just sending the message to the people of Bahrain that nothing has changed."

Protesters in Bahrain have promised three "days of rage" starting today with signs going up in the capital Manama reading "Do not race in our blood".

They are expected to reach their peak to coincide with the race on Sunday.

But it's unlikely Formula One bosses will be ordering close-ups of the protesters when Jenson and Button roar off down the track...

Voice of the Mirror: Page 8 Head in the sand: Page 71

A kingdom of islands in the sand?

Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands, the largest of which is Bahrain Island. The capital is Manama.

Bahrain was an emirate until 2002, when it was formally declared a kingdom.

The country is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 16 mile long King Fahd Causeway.

Oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932.

Bahrain has the fastest growing economy in the Arab world.

In 2006 the country moved its weekend from Thursday/Friday to Friday/ Saturday.

The population is 1,248,348, including 235,108 expats.

Bahrain has proven oil reserves of 125 million barrels, and produces 46,000 barrels a day ?One Bahraini Dinar is worth pounds 1.66

CAPTION(S):

SHAKE ON IT Cameron and King Hamad ON THE GRID Jenson UNDER FIRE Bernie Ecclestone LUXURY Bay in Manama RACING Lewis Hamilton FLASHPOINT Protests yesterday FURY Girl with picture of tortured activist RAGE Molotov cocktail is thrown at a tank STREET RAGE Female security forces
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 20, 2012
Words:1120
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