Against the backdrop of thousands of democracy protesters clashing with police, clouds of tear gas and a hunger striker who was reportedly nearing death, Formula One last night dismissed calls to cancel this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix – one of the most controversial in the history of the sport. Bahraini protesters reacted with incredulity after racing drivers and executives joked about the political violence in the Gulf kingdom and dismissed it as "hype" and "nonsense".
As tensions mounted, riot police fired stun grenades and tear gas canisters into crowds of thousands of predominantly Shia demonstrators who were calling for democratic reforms and the cancellation of tomorrow's race. The world champion Sebastian Vettel dismissed the violence as "a lot of hype".
Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 boss, hit out at reporters asking him to comment on the country's worsening political crisis. "It's a lot of nonsense," he said. "You guys love it. What we really need is an earthquake or something like that now so you can write about that."
David Cameron was equally dismissive of demands for the race to be called off despite the Foreign Office advising F1 fans against going to the Grand Prix. He insisted it was "a matter for Formula One", adding, "Bahrain is not Syria – there is a process of reform underway".
Ed Milliband, however, backed the 17 MPs who signed a Commons motion warning that the race is being used by the Bahraini government as "an endorsement of its policies of suppression of dissent". He said: "I certainly think it is the case that, given the violence we have seen in Bahrain and given the human rights abuses, I don't believe the Grand Prix should go ahead."
The perceived insensitivity of Formula One's drivers and executives angered opposition groups, who have borne the brunt of more than a year of state-sanctioned violent clashes which have left more than 50 dead and thousands tortured, imprisoned and sacked for speaking out against the monarchy.
In an interview with The Independent, the daughter of the hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja attacked Formula One's stars for refusing to comment on the strife. "I hope some day those drivers who don't want to talk about what is happening will change their minds," said Zainab al-Khawaja, whose imprisoned father is close to death after 70 days of hunger strike. "If they don't, maybe their children will ask them why they went to race in a country when its rulers were arresting and torturing so many people."
Mr Khawaja, a dissident leader from the majority Shia population, was imprisoned after protests against the rule of the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty broke out last year. He has been on hunger strike for more than two months and has even refused all water in the past 24 hours. His daughter said yesterday that he had asked for his will to be drawn up as his health rapidly deteriorated.
"We didn't have a lot of time," she said. "He told me he was certain of the path he was taking and that he didn't want anyone to use violence in the event of his death. He emphasised that peaceful resistance is the most powerful way to protest and called on people not to resort of violence in his name."
Determined to quash dissent in the run-up the race, Bahrain's security forces have ratcheted up their confrontations with demonstrators, pre-emptively arresting more than 90 dissident leaders, banning protests in the capital and using live ammunition, opposition groups say. Although more than 200 sports reporters have travelled to the country to cover the race, a number of foreign correspondents have been denied entry.
The Bahraini authorities have yet to give figures on arrests and injuries.
Last night tens of thousands of protesters rallied throughout the country with reports of police using stun grenades and tear gas on at least one group of demonstrators near the Al Qadam roundabout west of Manama. Activists have promised "three days of rage" as they capitalise on the international attention gained by the race.
Inside the paddock at the Bahraini International Circuit, 25 miles to the south of where many of the protests were breaking out, Formula One was doing its best to insist that it was business as usual. McLaren's Jenson Button summed up the feelings of the drivers when he told journalists: "You are here interviewing me as a driver and that's exactly what I am going to talk about – motor racing. The outside issues, I'm not going to talk about."
Sebastian Vettel was one of the few drivers willing to talk about the political dramas. But he caused widespread anger by playing down the violence.
"I am happy once we start testing because then we can start worrying about the stuff that really matters like tyre temperatures, cars," he joked. "I haven't seen anyone throwing bombs. I don't think it is that bad. There is a lot of hype which is why I think it is good that we start our job here which is the sport and nothing else."
Mr Ecclestone was similarly uncompromising, insisting that only the Bahraini authorities could not cancel the race. "I can't call this race off," he said. "Nothing to do with us. We've an agreement to be here, and we're here. Political things go on like in so many countries. These things happen, but we're not here to get involved in the politics." He added: "There are other countries much higher up the priority list you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things there because it's more important than here."
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, who owns the rights to F1 in his country, added that cancelling the race would "empower extremists".
"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," he said. "It allows us to celebrate our nation."
But opposition groups counter that the Grand Prix is being used by anti-reform hardliners to try to show the outside world that the kingdom has turned a corner since the troubles of last year.
Mattar Ebrahim, a senior member of Al Wefaq, the major Shia opposition party which is not against Formula One coming to Bahrain, told The Independent: "Formula One is being used by the government to mislead public opinion by saying that Bahrain is back to normal."
Racing certainty: Formula One defends itself
Martin Brundle, ex-driver, now Sky pundit: "In many ways, I've never seen [Bahrain] looking better. Clearly, there is some trouble out there, but I've not seen any of it. Some journalists have gone looking for it and unfortunately the trouble found Force India. If I were in charge of F1, I would have made the same decision to come here and race.
Jenson Button, McLaren driver: "I'm not going to get into the details of [what is happening in Bahrain]. You are here interviewing me as a driver and that's what I am going to talk about. The outside issues, I'm not going to talk about."
Sebastian Vettel, F1 world champion: "I am happy once we start testing tomorrow because then we can start worrying about the stuff that really matters like tyre temperatures, cars. I haven't seen anyone throwing bombs. I don't think it is that bad.There is a lot of hype which is why I think it is good that we start our job here which is the sport and nothing else."
Bernie Ecclestone, F1 boss: "The political thing is going in so many countries. These things happen. We are not here to get involved in politics. There are many more countries higher up the priority list that you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things because it is more important here."
Mark Thompson, F1 photographer for Getty Images: "No sign of any trouble in Bahrain and great night of hospitality at media dinner in central Manama. More red please."