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Divisive Bahrain Grand Prix issue rumbles on in F1

Men walk past anti-Formula One graffiti in the village of Barbar in Bahrain.


With two races gone in the 2012 Formula One season, all is not well in the paddock.

As the sport careens toward the disaster waiting to happen that is the Bahrain Grand Prix, tempers seem to be flaring on several fronts.

On Tuesday, the Lotus F1 Team sent out a release slamming the Bahrain International Circuit for revealing the contents of a confidential status report it wrote for the track after a visit to the Gulf kingdom.

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"These quotes were part of a full internal and confidential working document that was also sent on a confidential basis to all F1 team managers last week," it read.

"We would never try to substitute ourselves for the [sport's governing] Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), which is the only party entitled to determine if a Grand Prix should go ahead."

Despite assurances from the organizers, many feel the event is about to be cancelled for the second consecutive year due to democracy protests. F1 races in Shanghai, China this weekend before its scheduled stop in Bahrain on Apr. 22.

The circuit's boss, Zayed Al-Zayani, had issued his own release earlier the same day blaming "scaremongering" by extremist groups on social media for the safety concerns surrounding the race. He used the Lotus quotes to support his claims.

"Yes, there is a need to keep the circuit and the teams secure, and they are doing this and they feel very comfortable about the arrangements," the release read, quoting the Lotus personnel. "We came away from Bahrain feeling a lot more confident that everything is in hand and, to be honest, if it wasn't for a few more police you wouldn't know any difference from the last year we were there."

In 2011, the race was cancelled after dozens died in anti-government protests. The protests and violence have continued, with a bombing last weekend injuring several policemen.

A couple of former world champions also squared off in the Bahrain debate. Damon Hill, the 1996 champion, questioned whether the race should go ahead, while Sir Jackie Stewart joined the pro-Bahrain camp.

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"What we must put above all else is what will be the penalty in terms of human cost if the race goes ahead," Hill told The Guardian.

"It would be a bad state of affairs, bad for F1, to be seen to be enforcing martial law to hold the race."

Three-time champion Stewart cited the economic repercussions of cancelling the race for a second time but, fundamentally, he doesn't agree with the way protesters are holding the race hostage.

"If somebody does a demonstration in such a way that it disturbs a major sporting event, I think that's a serious fraud," Stewart said. "I think that if these were peaceful demonstrations, it would be much more powerful for those who need to have that change and want to have that change to have the world see them as responsible people, not irresponsible people."

Earlier this month, some F1 teams also showed their allegiance, when McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull and Williams officials attended a lunch that was hosted by the event organizers in support of the race going ahead.

In another corner of the paddock, the ongoing row between Group Lotus and the former Team Lotus also heated up again this week, when the former sent out a press release titled "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story".

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The two sides waged a legal battle in the run-up to the 2011 season as both claimed the name Lotus as their racing banner. In the end, there were two teams called Lotus last year, although one was renamed after its boss, Tony Fernandes, bought Caterham Cars and renamed his team to reflect the new purchase.

Group Lotus' jaw-dropping note was sent "to set the record straight" regarding rumours about the car company's future, though they didn't deny the company was going through a very difficult phase.

The first issue was an Apr. 9 tweet by Fernandes, which said the chief executive of Group Lotus Dany Bahar and the managing director of parent company Proton, Datuk Seri Syed Zainal Abidin Syed Mohammed Tahir, had both left their positions.

"So the story is coming full circle," Fernandes tweeted. "The two guys who wasted so much money taking us to court are gone. Chairman and CEO. Could have been so different. But Caterham doing good."

Proton denied reports that its managing director had offered his resignation, a fact that was reported in several media outlets in Malaysia, where the company has its headquarters.

Proton was taken over by Malaysian auto assembly company DRB-Hicom earlier this year.

The Group Lotus release said: "You can thank good old Tony Fernandes for these two. Don't take everything he tweets too seriously – perhaps he's still frustrated about owning Caterham instead of Lotus and the fact that he fights [backmarkers]HRT and Marussia instead of [frontrunners]Mercedes and Ferrari in F1.

"And whilst we're on the subject of jokes, do you know the latest F1 joke? Mike Gascoyne, Caterham Group's chief technical officer, has gone missing. Why? He's looking for the 30 to 40 points he predicted for the last F1 season. Funny."

Caterham scored zero points in 2011. The group has a best result of 13th and heads to China this weekend without a point in the first two races.

While Group Lotus repelled the news, sources inside Proton told The Malaysian Insider that Syed Zainal would stay with the company only until the summer.

The next target was Joe Saward, who has published several stories about Group Lotus and Proton on both his personal blog and his Formula One news website. Saward is also a director of the Caterham Cars Group, the specialty auto maker Fernandes owns.

"Unlike some," the release read, "we don't want to get too personal, so we'll leave it to you to judge how 'independent' his stories about Lotus are."

Saward shot back on his blog: "People who get criticized by me are always going to try to justify themselves by trying to undermine me. I accept that. It is for me to prove that this is not the case. Those who read this blog on a regular basis already know that. If you prefer the Group Lotus version of the facts, that is your prerogative. For those who do not know, all I can suggest is that you keep reading what I write and find out if I am fair or not."

While the Group Lotus release fired across the bow of old foe Fernandes and apparently new foe Saward, it also outlined the company's changed relationship with the Lotus F1 Team, formerly Renault.

While the sponsorship of the team was dropped, Group Lotus lent $55-million to the team owners Genii, which was secured by the F1 team's assets. So, depending on what happens in the next couple of years, we could see Group Lotus in the paddock as a team owner. If that happens, it might be wise to house the Group Lotus owned team right next to Caterham in the garage and paddock, just to keep the mud contained.

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