There's no denying a state of nervous tension hanging over the Bahrain International Circuit on Saturday ahead of qualifying.

While the F1 paddock in Sakhir is a world unto itself, the events surrounding Force India's proximity to a firebombing incident mid-week, and then the Sauber team witnessing another incident the following night brought the reality of the situation outside the paddock boundary uncomfortably close to home for many.

On Friday night, following the practice sessions which saw Force India depart early and the Crown Prince of Bahrain - Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa - refuse to consider postponing or abandoning the event on the grounds that to do so would encourage extremists, there were more demonstrations in the area as a planned "Three Days of Rage" anti-government protest started to crank up.

The first mass demonstration of the weekend took place on the Zayyaq Highway close to the F1 circuit. Two more followed in the Budaiya Road area in the north-west. The US Embassy's leaked list of 'no-go' areas included an area close to the Hamad Road that was the team's main route back to the capital city of Manama, and areas close to the old Pearl Roundabout that was occupied in 2011 as a focus of demonstrations that ended up with the F1 and GP2 events being abandoned at the last minute. Another demonstration is planned for Sunday at the nearby University of Bahrain, timed for the middle of the race.

The protests are not limited to just physical proximity of the F1 circuit, either. Hackers' collective Anonymous said on Friday that it would wage its own war on the event, warning Bernie Ecclestone that they would "turn your web site into a smoking crater in cyber space," adding: "and wreck anything else of yours we can find on the internet."

The Crown Prince has now guaranteed the physical safety of F1 personnel in Bahrain over the weekend, but his earlier admission that a track invasion was possible has hardly reassured the teams and drivers.

"Of course we fear most the possibility of some sort of track invasion on Sunday during the race, or some sort of protest on the grid prior to the start," he said on Thursday evening. "But we have tried to be subtle in our security."

Meanwhile the media criticism of the decision to go ahead with the race is also ramping up in the UK. One of the most respected journalists covering the Middle East - The Independent's award-winning Robert Fisk - insisted that "this ain't no sporting event, folks, it's a political one," and that the proof was right there in how the Bahrain government were allowing sports reporters into the country but turning away reporters including the Sky News' chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay, who is having to file reports from Dubai despite the fact that his Sky Sports colleagues are covering the events from pit lane.

Fisk reserved particular venom for Sebastian Vettel for his comments that the civil unrest in Bahrain was "a lot of hype", going so far as to dub the double world champion "a disgraceful man" and "clueless".

"Vettel knows - unless he's a complete git - that the Bahraini government's own report on last year's suppression describes deaths in custody, police torture and shooting deaths on the streets," wrote Fisk in Saturday's Independent. "The days have gone when sportsmen and sportswomen can dissociate themselves from the moral values in which we claim to believe in the 21st century."

Reacting against such blistering criticism, Bahrain's official news agency released a poll asserting that 77 per cent of the population of the country were in favour of the Grand Prix going ahead compared to 10 per cent who were against. Overall, 85 per cent were said to feel that "the race benefits the country's economy, with the hospitality, travel and tourism sectors benefiting most."

But there's no question that the situation is highly polarised. One team reported that a protester had made it into the hotel they were staying at, and screamed: "Do you know that by being here you have killed 80 people?"

On the political level in the UK, Labour's leader Ed Miliband and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper have both called for the race to be cancelled. Miliband wants the government to speak out against the race while Cooper called for British drivers including Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to pull out. Similarly, Labour's shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said that he would be "very pleased if the BBC pulled out" of their coverage of the weekend's events.

But their comments were not echoed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

"It's a matter for F1," insisted Cameron. "I think we should be clear that Bahrain is not Syria, there is a process of reform underway and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform."

In the meantime, life goes on in the F1 paddock, with team bosses united in insisting that they were here for the sport and that the politics had no place in the weekend's Grand Prix. On the route in to Sakhir this morning for Free Practice 3 and Qualifying there was a notably ramped-up police presence on the streets, with police and armoured personnel carriers in evidence every few hundred years, with police officers and soldiers carrying guns.

At the perimeter of the circuit itself, security was at unprecedented levels with long queues for the X-ray machines on entrance. Everyone was given a pat-down body search as they entered, even after clearing the airport-style metal detectors.

But the teams and F1 personnel were determined to keep going, and even to maintain a sense of humour. Red Bull's pit garage speakers were blasting out music early on: and rather than 2011's familiar "Big Bad Wolf", there was the wry and hopefully not prophetic choice of the Kaiser Chief's "I Predict a Riot."


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