Protesters aim to disrupt Bahrain Grand Prix for second year in a row

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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In 2011, the “Arab Spring” didn’t just roil the political world, it also put a stop to the Bahrain Grand Prix, which was supposed to be the inaugural race of the 2011 Formula One (F1) season.

Now, emboldened by their success in forcing the cancellation of last year’s race, Shiite protesters opposed to the rule of Sunni Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa seem determined to disrupt the 2012 event scheduled for this weekend.

The battle between the regime and the protesters is a proxy for the larger conflict for regional dominance between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and an Iran dominated by fundamentalist Shiite clerics. Though tiny, Bahrain is strategically vital to the West, laying astride the Persian Gulf and serving as the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Though the threat to the race hasn’t attracted much attention in the U.S., it’s dominating the headlines in the U.K., home of F1 headquarters and millions of the sport’s most rabid fans. The head of the U.K. Labor Party called for the race to be cancelled due to the threat of violence, while F1 honcho Bernie Ecclestone is punting the decision to the country’s rulers. “I can’t call this race off. Nothing to do with us. We’ve an agreement to be here, and we’re here,” said Ecclestone.

With Friday’s practice session completed, the teams will return to the race course tomorrow for qualifying before running the race on Sunday. In the meantime, all that seems certain is that many of the locals will be determined to deliver their message to an international audience, while Bahrain’s ruling family will do their level best to stop them.

In the U.S., coverage of the race will be televised by the Speed Channel, with qualifying airing on Saturday at 7:00 a.m. EDT and the race at 7:30 a.m. EDT on Sunday. If you watch, you may just get to see more than a car race.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.