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Formula One returns to divided Bahrain

Even assuming the race goes off as planned in the divided Gulf nation, two-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel‘s bid to salvage his season is likely to be overshadowed by anti-government demonstrations and tight security.

The last-minute decision to go ahead on Sunday with the race — canceled last year because of anti-government protests that have left nearly 50 dead — was made last week after Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone declared the Gulf kingdom safe. Ecclestone says all 12 teams told him they were happy to travel to the island nation despite violent, almost daily clashes between security forces and protesters.

On Tuesday, thousands of protesters demanding greater rights for the Shiite majority chanted slogans criticizing the Sunni rulers and called for the release of political prisoners, including Mushaima and al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than two months. And on Wednesday, security forces fired stun grenades at anti-government protesters at a cultural exhibition for the race.

The Coalition of the Youth of the February 14 Revolution and other rights groups have said protests will continue through the weekend. They argue the race should be postponed until the government ends its rights abuses, enacts meaningful reforms and starts dialogue with the opposition.

“The regime was isolated because of the crimes it committed, and the Bahrain Grand Prix is giving a way out for the government, especially the royal family,” said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “We need this regime to be punished for the crimes it has committed in the past year and half.”

The race should be a wide-open affair, with no clear favorite and at least a half-dozen drivers with a solid chance to win. The race’s unpredictability is a reflection of a surprising F1 season in which three different drivers won the first three races.

McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who finished third in all three races, leads the drivers standings with 45 points, two ahead of teammate Jenson Button, who won the season-opening Australian GP and finished second in China. Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, who won the Malaysian GP, is third with 37 points, followed by Red Bull teammates Mark Webber (36) and Vettel (28), who has struggled this year.

For Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, the race is nothing short of an economic lifeline.

The Bahrain GP is the nation’s biggest sports event, drawing a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries. It brought in $500 million and 100,000 visitors in 2010, according to global risk analysis group Maplecroft. Such an infusion is desperately needed in a country whose economy contracted 50% last year because of the unrest, Maplecroft said.

Organizers repeatedly have said the race will be safe and that security fears are overblown. They have blamed extremist groups using “scare-mongering tactics” for raising doubts about the race and have employed everyone from Bahrain soccer coach Peter Taylor to John Yates, a former assistant commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police Service, to assure Formula One teams and fans that the race will be problem-free.

“This race is more than a mere global sport event and should not be politicized to serve certain goals, which may be detrimental to this international gathering,” said Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as he toured the Bahrain International Circuit on Tuesday.

He owns the rights to the Grand Prix and serves as commander of the armed forces.

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