GP2 Asia: racing cancelled as Bahrain protests deepen [UPDATED]

Political unrest in Bahrain has led to the cancellation of the GP2 Asia race weekend, and to serious concerns about the viability of the first F1 race of the 2011 season.

The second weekend of the 2011 GP2 Asia series has been cancelled outright, following a worsening of the political situation in Bahrain.

Initially only Friday’s racing was postponed with hopes that the delayed sessions could move to Friday morning ahead of the feature race. The official reason given at the time was that the medical staff who would have been in attendance at today’s practice and qualifying rounds were now needed to be on standby at hospitals around the city in case of further violence, with at least three people reported dead as security forces acted to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters in Pearl Square in the centre of the capital, Manama. Tanks and hundreds of riot police using tear gas and batons moved in before dawn.

“Due to the current local events, the medical staff normally stationed at the circuit has been temporary called to the city’s hospitals in case of an emergency,” said the first statement from GP2 officials this morning. “For obvious safety reasons, the GP2 Series organisers have decided to postpone today’s track activity until tomorrow.”

However, just hours later a second statement from the GP2 organisers confirmed that the entire weekend was now officially abandoned.

“Following the current events in Bahrain, at the request of the Bahrain Motorsport Federation, it has been decided that the remainder of the meeting which was supposed to take place this week at Bahrain International Circuit is cancelled due to force majeure.”

Wider developments in this fast-moving situation may result not only in this confirmed cancellation of this weekend’s GP2 Asia races, but possibly have a serious impact on the upcoming F1 Grand Prix scheduled for three weeks on Sunday March 13 which also includes the third and final weekend of the GP2 Asia season as a support race. Before that, there is the final F1 pre-season test due to be held in Bahrain from March 3-6: teams will be committed to the event as early as the end of next week as they have to start to airfreight equipment and advance staff to the country. It’s expected that the viability of the test will be discussed tomorrow, when teams are due to meet in Barcelona for a get-together of FOTA’s Sporting Working Regulation Group.

According to reports from motorsports journalists on Twitter, reporters now arriving in Bahrain are being refused entry and getting turned away, while those GP2 personnel already in the country are being advised to stay away from large crowds. Teams based in hotels near the Pearl Roundabout have been told not to return to their hotels as tanks roll into the Pearl Square area of Manama city, which is a base of the protesters and one of the targets stormed by Bahrain army forces overnight. Manama is the only nearby location to the track with sufficient accommodation for GP2 and F1 teams and staff.

There are also signs that communications links are being restricted during the crisis, with the CNN rolling news feed to the Bahrain International Circuit media reportedly cut this morning, and journalists saying that the Internet connection has been noticeably “tuned down”, restricting some sites while overall running slow – making uploads of photo and video media problematic and even small bits of data such as tweets proving hit or miss, leaving F1 with the prospect of running a race no one can watch or hear.

Speaking of the possibility of the F1 Grand Prix being affected, FIA President Jean Todt told the Irish Independent newspaper this morning that “I always try not to over-react on breaking stories.

“There has been some movement in Bahrain. I understand things are improving and we have to wait,” he said. “The next step is the GP2 race this weekend,” he added, raising the possibility that the decision to cancel the GP2 Asia weekend may have a direct bearing on the decision to pull out of the first Grand Prix event of the season.

Among the many considerations are whether or not teams could even get business insurance to cover its staff and high-profile drivers in the country, but top of the list of concerns for F1 is the possibility of protesters invading the facility during an event. Crowd handling is not normally an issue in Bahrain for GP2 at least: as motorsports journalist Will Buxton wryly noted on Twitter, “Government advice is to avoid large crowds in Bahrain. Shouldn’t be a problem. Last year about 4 people showed up for the GP2 Asia race.”

A leading protest group in Bahrain earlier this week already specifically called for the targeting of the Grand Prix to publicise its cause. With the Bahrain government already restricting communications, it’s unlikely they will want a huge live event being broadcast from the capital with all the potential for that to spin out of control so it’s possible Bahrain itself may withdraw from the F1 calendar even before the FIA, Bernie Ecclestone and FOTA can make a decision.

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