Formula One drivers took to the race track following days of violent clashes between police and protesters in Bahrain yesterday, with organisers defying calls for the controversial Grand Prix to be cancelled.
Heightened security in anti-government strongholds prevented protesters from demonstrating in large numbers. The event was the Sunni monarchy's opportunity to show life had returned to normal after security concerns over anti-government protests led to the cancellation of last year's race.
Ahead of the event, youths burned tyres and blocked roads in Budaiya, a village outside the capital that saw mass protests this week. As the first cars crossed the finishing line in the afternoon, protesters announced plans to gather at the site of the former Pearl Roundabout in the centre of Manama – the focus of last year's clashes.
More demonstrations are anticipated following the death of a protester on Saturday. But activists said that many people were reluctant to protest after the recent crackdown. "There are armoured vehicles at the entrance to every village. If anyone emerges now they will just be shot at. The government has sent a very strong message," Dr Alaa Shehabi, an activist, said.
Earlier, opposition parties claimed that a 37-year-old man found dead on Saturday was killed by riot police. Protester Salah Abbas Habib was found on a rooftop after overnight clashes, providing more fuel for outrage among a Shia Muslim majority furious at being marginalised by the ruling Sunnis.
Away from all the street protests, at the Bahrain International Circuit's paddock, there was an overriding sentiment of relief among race organisers and participants following the race.
"From the point of view of the business of motor racing, it was normal Bahrain," the McLaren team driver Jenson Button said. "We know there has been a lot going on outside. But we haven't seen that, and all we know about it is what we have read."