Formula One organizers called off the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Monday because of the anti-government protests sweeping the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom.
“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.
Eight people have been killed since the unrest began last week and demonstrators planned to use the March 13 race to highlight demands for the ruling monarchy to give up its near-absolute control over key policies and positions.
Much of the protesters’ anger had centered on Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who owns the rights to the Grand Prix. He notified F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone by telephone on Monday that the event would not go ahead.
“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; reminding the world of the very best that Bahrain is capable of as a nation once again united,” he said in a statement.
No new date has been set for the race, which is the kingdom’s biggest international sports event. The Bahrain GP 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.”
Last week, Ecclestone said he hoped the unrest “all blows away” and the race could still go ahead.
The F1 championship’s next scheduled race is the Australian GP in Melbourne on March 27.
There has been speculation the Bahrain GP could be rescheduled at the end of the season.
Tensions are still high in Bahrain after seesaw battles that saw riot police open fire on protesters trying to reclaim landmark Pearl Square last week.
The protesters had already forced the cancellation of a lower-tier GP2 Asia Series race last weekend.
However, it is the arrival of Formula One teams that brings worldwide attention to a nation of about 525,000 citizens. The race would normally be broadcast to a worldwide audience of around 100 million in 187 countries.
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.