Amid the maelstrom of controversy threatening to engulf tomorrow's Bahrain Grand Prix, Bernie Ecclestone remained characteristically defiant.
In his sprawling first-floor office above the Sakhir paddock, as several thousand pro-democracy protesters lined the Budaiya highway in nearby Manama, Formula One's 82-year-old generalissimo perceived not the slightest reason why the race should not go ahead.
"I haven't seen any of the people here wanting to go to Syria or Saudi Arabia," Ecclestone said with a shrug. "There are lots of places they could go – Iran, if they wanted. But they seem happy to stay."
The demonstrations against King Hamad's regime mounted substantially yesterday, both in the capital Manama and in the troubled kingdom's outlying Shia villages. An ITN news team, including special correspondent Rageh Omaar, were also deported back to Britain after a spell in police detention.
The atmosphere on the eve of Bahrain's race weekend was tense, with those arriving in Sakhir by private transport requiring up to eight security checks on approach to the circuit.
Ecclestone, asked whether he still felt that the arrival here of his glamorous circus brought benefits to the country, said: "Absolutely. Think about it. Had you ever heard of Bahrain before this race? Nobody had. They thought it was somewhere south of Florida."
Ahead of skirmishes last night with police, Bahraini protesters bore placards with such slogans as, 'Don't race on our blood'. Shia activists have demanded the cancellation of the Grand Prix over Bahrain's poor human rights record and an alleged culture of police brutality. But Ecclestone, F1's commercial rights holder, replied: "During this week the protesters have a platform to work from. During the whole year they don't act – they only ever do something when the race is on."
The determination of Ecclestone, even in his ninth decade, to confront this type of challenge to his beloved enterprise is undimmed. As he put it yesterday, having famously once sold second-hand cars in London's Warren Street: "You can't keep a good used-car salesman down."
But the unrest gathering on Bahrain's streets last night represented a test of even his formidable authority. Many demonstrators, angry at the slow pace of reform since the violently crushed revolution in 2011, blocked roads with burning tyres as police responded by firing tear gas and stun grenades.
A spokesperson for the Bahrain Centre of Human Rights claimed that birdshot had also been used against protesters in the largely Shia town of Sitra. Trouble was especially acute in Diraz, where the smouldering tyres sent black smoke into the air.
British diplomatic sources yesterday described Bahrain as a "mixed-up place, where in many towns the security situation has grown considerably worse".
The travel of journalists has been closely monitored by the authorities this week, with police patrol cars installed on every stretch of motorway, and the ITN team of five led by Omaar were last night ordered to leave Bahrain after trying to report on the violent clashes. An ITV spokeswoman confirmed that they had all been issued with media visas, highly difficult to obtain here outside Grand Prix week, but had since been detained and "asked to leave the country".
After the chaos surrounding the race 12 months ago, which took place against a backdrop of riot police and petrol bomb attacks, the situation this year is less febrile but still precarious. Given the spotlight on the small island kingdom, the crown prince of Bahrain walked through the paddock for a second consecutive day to stress to foreign reporters that the country was addressing its human rights issues.
Bahrain pays £26m a year to host this race, with a recent survey by polling giant Nielsen concluding that 77pc of the population were in favour of Formula One coming here. That figure was hard to square with the young men who felt strongly enough yesterday to torch tyres and to daub graffiti on the walls of Manama which read, 'Our blood is our sacrifice to the nation' and 'It is my right to choose my destiny'.
And yet the immediate destiny of F1 in this strife-torn corner of the Gulf is, under the aegis of the single-minded Ecclestone, already sealed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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