Bahrain Grand Prix called off
MANAMA, Bahrain -- The crown prince of Bahrain called off Formula One's season-opening race Monday, handing another victory to protesters aiming to break the ruling dynasty's stranglehold on power in the Gulf kingdom.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights to the grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces in an island country were at least eight protesters have been killed in a week of unrest.
Angry protesters, who see the Bahrain GP as particularly meaningful to him, wanted the March 13 race dropped.
Facing more demonstrations around an event that draws a worldwide TV audience of around 100 million in 187 countries, the crown prince told F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone by telephone that the race would not go ahead.
"We felt it was important for the country to focus on immediate issues of national interest and leave the hosting of Bahrain's Formula One race to a later date," Bahrain's crown prince said in a statement.
After launching deadly attacks on protesters at a landmark in the capital city of Manama, the nation's security forces pulled back Saturday under international pressure and allowed demonstrators to occupy Pearl Square. The protesters have now established a tent city there.
"I am happy the Formula One canceled, but I will be happier when the government falls," said Mohamed Nimah, a demonstrator at the encampment. He said the race was a "good thing" for Bahrainis, bringing in "a good amount of money for us."
"But the government itself forced it to be canceled by refusing to give us our rights," Nimah said.
Saud Masud, chief executive of SM Advisory Group, a New York-based investment consultancy focused on the Gulf, said that scratching the March date will impact tourism in a nation of just 525,000 citizens, but the real effect "could be psychological." Bahrain also is a U.S. key ally in the Gulf, hosting the Navy's 5th Fleet.
The crown prince has been mandated by the king to lead talks between political factions and end the showdown between the country's Shiite majority and the Sunni rulers. So far, the protesters have shown little desire to meet with him.
Just short of an apology for the loss of life, Salman struck the most reconciliatory tone since the uprising began Feb. 14 in his statement on the race.
"After the events of the past week, our nation's priority is on overcoming tragedy, healing divisions and rediscovering the fabric that draws this country together," Salman said.
No new date has been set for the Bahrain GP that has been on the F1 calendar every year since 2004.
"It is sad that Bahrain has had to withdraw from the race, we wish the whole nation well as they begin to heal their country," Ecclestone said. "The hospitality and warmth of the people of Bahrain is a hallmark of the race there, as anyone who has been at a Bahrain Grand Prix will testify. We look forward to being back in Bahrain soon."
The F1 championship's next scheduled race is the Australian GP in Melbourne on March 27.
The Bahrain GP could be rescheduled later in the season, with speculation it could take place after the Abu Dhabi race on Nov. 13 if the season-finale in Brazil is moved from Nov. 27 into December.
Protesters said over the weekend that proceeding with the race would be an insult to the victims of the uprising and proof that the Sunni royal family, in power for 200 years, has not heard the demands of the Shiite population, which wants a larger share in the nation's decision-making process.
Last week, Ecclestone said he hoped the unrest "all blows away" and the race could still go ahead. But protests also forced the cancellation of a lower-tier GP2 Asia Series event over the weekend.
"It is clear that to race in Bahrain at this time would be inappropriate given the current circumstances," Williams F1 team chairman Adam Parr said.
Parr said final winter testing will now be held at Barcelona's Catalunya Circuit from March 8-11, instead of in Bahrain from March 3-6 as previously scheduled.
"The right decision was made, in light of what is going on, so we look forward to Melbourne instead," Red Bull driver Mark Webber said.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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