Three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel won the Bahrain Grand Prix yesterday, easily beating Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in a race that was the target of rights groups and anti-government protesters in the divided nation.
After taking the lead for good on the 17th lap, the Red Bull driver was never challenged.
Raikkonen closed the gap in the final five laps, but ran out of time. Grosjean passed Force India’s Paul di Resta for third for his best finish this season.
Vettel retains the championship lead after four of 19 races, with his advantage over Raikkonen now 10 points.
The race has been the target of rights groups that contend it glosses over the country’s political problems while anti-government protesters intensified their demonstrations against the Sunni-led government.
Protesters blocked several roads and police fired teargas at a school in Bahrain yesterday, activists said, as the Gulf state staged a Formula One race promoted by the government as pure sport, but seen by the opposition as a public relations stunt.
Scores of police cars and a couple of armored vehicles stood along the highway from the capital Manama to the race circuit, where the Grand Prix took place without incident.
Witnesses at the Sakhir desert circuit, about 30km southwest of the capital, said there was no sign of unrest in the immediate vicinity.
Asked for comment on the reported clashes, which included more of the near-nightly violence between police and youths in villages near the capital, a Bahraini Interior Ministry official said only that everything was normal.
Protests in the Gulf Arab country — a key Western ally that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet — broke out in 2011, with the Shiite-led opposition drawing thousands of demonstrators demanding democratic reforms from the Sunni-led government.
The unrest forced the cancellation of that year’s Formula One race and although the event went ahead last year, it was overshadowed by violent protests in the country.
Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said some protesters had blocked several roads around Manama yesterday morning and police fired teargas at a secondary school in the city where students had been demonstrating.
Except for a black plume of smoke rising from a dirt field, there were few signs of unrest by late afternoon in mostly Shiite villages near Manama visited by Reuters.
Police cars patrolled the graffiti-adorned village of Diraz, where clashes have taken place in the last few days.
In Saar village, riot police with teargas guns and white helmets riding in all-terrain vehicles cleared a road that had been blocked with palm tree trunks.
Nearby streets were blocked with cinderblocks, a rubbish bin and sticks. People stood in doors of shops, swept the streets, rode bicycles and walked dogs nearby.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa, who attended yesterday’s race, dismissed the suggestion the government was using the race to paper over human rights abuses. Speaking on Saturday, he said more than 15,000 people visited the circuit on Friday and more were expected yesterday.
“What I would like to say is let’s focus on what’s positive, let’s build upon the platform that we have, and let’s celebrate this event with Bahrainis who are really passionate,” he told reporters at the circuit.
Crown Prince Salman is a driving force behind talks between the government and main opposition groups aimed at breaking the political deadlock. He described the race as an opportunity to transcend national differences.