SEOUL (Reuters) - Formula One teams say they have no qualms about scheduling crucial pre-season tests in Bahrain next February after the restive Gulf kingdom’s grand prix went ahead without incident this year.
The 2011 race had to be cancelled, due to civil unrest and the crushing of an anti-government uprising that cost at least 35 lives, and some rights activists have since urged teams and sponsors to stay away.
Teams have argued in their defense that Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone draws up the calendar and they are contractually obliged to race wherever he decides.
However, they do have a choice when it comes to testing venues and there were ready-made alternatives to Bahrain in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, whose team is half-owned by Bahrain’s Mumtalakat sovereign wealth fund, said attitudes had evolved since the height of the unrest.
“I think people are relaxed about going there based on their experience of this year,” he told Reuters.
Bahrain circuit authorities said last weekend, during the Korean Grand Prix, that the Sakhir track would host pre-season tests from February 19-22 and February 27-March 2 next year.
Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the first race in Bahrain and organizers are planning a floodlit day-to-night event like the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The 2012 race was seen as a public relations own-goal for Bahrain’s rulers, coming against the backdrop of security forces firing teargas in streets and villages while protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs in images broadcast around the world.
This year’s grand prix in April passed largely without incident, despite opposition rallies and regular skirmishes out of sight of most Formula One visitors.
The state news agency BNA reported on Monday that nine Bahrainis had been jailed for life for forming a militant group, manufacturing explosives and plotting attacks aimed at destabilizing the kingdom.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said he was not aware of any contingency plan for the tests should unrest flare up again.
“Obviously we hope things are progressing there as well as they can. Quite frankly, it’s not been a major topic, it’s not been discussed, so hopefully we can have a quiet time there,” he told reporters.
“There have been assurances about the conditions there. It was part of the discussion that has gone on,” he added.
Teams and engine makers say they need to test in the Middle East to guarantee the hot conditions they will not find in Europe at that time of year.
With a radically new V6 turbocharged engine being introduced, the manufacturers cannot afford to lose any of the limited testing time available to the weather.
“From the purely technical perspective, Bahrain is a more representative circuit,” Brawn added. “We can test there, we prefer to test there. It’s the best, most suitable track at that time of the year.”
Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said the decision had been led by the engine makers - Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari - and smaller teams like her Swiss-based outfit had to fall in line.
“If the tests are mainly meant for the engine, to have the right conditions to test that engine, then you don’t have a choice,” she said.
Editing by John O'Brien