Jan.18 (Reuters) Former world champion Damon Hill has spoken out in favour of Formula One returning to Bahrain this year despite continuing civil unrest in the Gulf kingdom.
Last year’s grand prix was postponed and then cancelled after pro-democracy protests in Manama but the race has been reinstated on this year’s calendar for April 22.
Hill strongly opposed racing in Bahrain last year but told the Times newspaper on Wednesday that he had changed his mind about the coming race after visiting the country with Jean Todt, head of the sport’s governing FIA.
“I do not like seeing people shot and brutalised,” said the 1996 world champion. “I was frustrated last year that Formula One did not raise its voice against what was happening.
“But a lot has changed there since then.
“It is clear that the situation in Bahrain is better understood and I don’t think anyone would want to go back to Bahrain if there was suffering just because of a grand prix.
“I listened to a lot of people there, including eye-witnesses. I believe they are making change for the better. There is no question they have issues, but every country has issues; we had riots here in the UK not so long ago,” said the Briton, who will be an F1 pundit for SKY television this year.
“This time, Formula One can go to Bahrain with a clear conscience and not just as a tool for some sort of cover-up,” he said.
The Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir last week announced that it was reinstating employees sacked after last year’s unrest.
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has said he hopes the race will go ahead without incident.
However, local campaigners have called for the teams to boycott the race, which is Bahrain’s biggest sporting event and watched by many millions around the world as well as being important for the economy.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced constitutional amendments at the weekend to give parliament more powers of scrutiny over government but the opposition said they fell short of demands for democracy.
Clashes between riot police and mainly Shi’ite opposition activists have taken place on an almost daily basis since martial law was lifted in May last year.