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Bahrain GP protesters say: 'No to bloody Formula'

Bahrain GP organisers carry on regardless, with Nico Rosberg claiming pole for controversial race

If 10,000 people protested on the streets of London against the staging of the British Grand Prix, media coverage would be frenzied. But perspective is everything. In the days leading up to this afternoon's Bahrain Grand Prix there were similar numbers gathered on the streets of Manama, the Bahraini capital, and in surrounding villages such as Sanabis and Sitra, but the majority were not protesting against the race.

They were using it as an indirect tool with which to focus world attention on the human-rights abuses in the Gulf kingdom. This year's protests echoed the Arab Spring riots of February 14 2011, which led to the cancellation of that year's race and rendered its return last year as an international cause célèbre. Human rights remain an ongoing fight as a slowly moving political process is interspersed with violent action.

This year's race has been notably calmer and stories of tension in the paddock have been widely exaggerated. There has been far less of the violence which last year saw the Force India and Sauber teams caught up in the aftermath of petrol-bomb attacks on policemen as clashes between security forces and extremists became progressively more volatile.

On Friday, Sheikh Ali Salman, of the opposition Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, said: "We do not want to hold up the race, but we are trying to benefit from the increased media presence."

That message has not percolated fully. At Bahrain Bay, the financial centre which carries the hopes for the nation's future, a government poster shows a racing car and a young child playing with a model Ferrari F40 under the headline, "Inspiring future generations". But elsewhere extremists have painted walls with racing car images and the words, "No for the bloody Formula".

Deputy Prime Minister Crown Prince Salman, the son of King Hamad, is responsible for trying to resolve the bitter dispute between the ruling Sunni royal family and the predominant Shia population. "Let's not politicise the race," he said. "Seventy seven per cent of Bahrainis are behind it, and 90 believe that it benefits our economy.

"The demonstrations were largely peaceful, with people expressing their rights to disagree. That is the kind of thing we want to support, not the violent extremists. Little distinction is made between the two.

"The race should be a help in the political process. Keeping Bahrain connected to the international community is very important, as it stops us looking inwards and keeps us looking outward. This weekend is really about sport and transcending our conflicts and celebrating what's great about humanity in the true spirit of noble competition."

There has even been harmony between the sport's rulers. Not since the comradely days of Max Mosleyhave the International Automobile Association (FIA) and Formula One Management (FOM) issued a joint statement. But, despite the much-criticised absence from the race of Jean Todt, the FIA president, the two parties insist that they had no qualms about the race going ahead despite renewed pleas in some quarters for a last-minute cancellation.

"The FIA and FOM strongly believe that sport can often be a force for good and that the staging of the Grand Prix in Bahrain will come some way in helping soothe some of the issues raised," they said.

On the track, Nico Rosberg took pole position for Mercedes – their second in a row and their first back to back since 1955 – ahead of favourites Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. Paul di Resta is the best-placed British driver after Rosberg's team-mate Lewis Hamilton incurred a penalty for a changed gear box which dropped him from fourth to ninth on the grid, while Mark Webber's penalty for an incident in last week's Chinese Grand Prix promoted Di Resta from seventh to fifth.

"It wasn't the best of days for me but congratulations to Nico," Hamilton said. "He did a really good job. I couldn't quite find the pace and, with losing five places, we've got a tough challenge. The best chance to gain positions will come at the start, then we'll see how it goes."

Jenson Button, who was 10th, said: "There are positives to be drawn: we out-qualified a Lotus, which was a surprise, and I'll be driving the first car starting on new tyres tomorrow. As in China, that brings a slight strategic advantage, so I'm hoping we can have another decent outing."