Former F1 champion Damon Hill has weighed in on the row over the planned Bahrain Grand Prix, telling media he is in favour of the race going ahead in April despite calls for a boycott.
Hill, who recently visited the Gulf kingdom, said he “did not like seeing people shot and brutalised,” but added that Formula One could return with a clear conscience this year.
"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,” he told The Times.
"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.”
Bahrain’s season-opening race at Sakhir circuit was postponed last March after widespread political unrest in the country and the deaths of a number of pro-reform demonstrators.
Efforts were made to reschedule the race, but the Gulf state was eventually dropped from the 2011 calendar in June after protests from Formula One teams and drivers.
Bahrain reportedly paid around £25m ($39.2m) in hosting fees for last year’s scrapped three-day race, after refusing an offer of a refund from F1’s Jersey-based parent company, Delta Topco.
“We will do campaign for….drivers and teams to boycott. The government wants Formula One to tell the outside world that everything is back to normal,” Nabeel Rajab, vice president for Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Arabian Business.
“Formula One, if they come, they are helping the government to say [it is normal]. We would prefer it if they didn’t take part. I am sure the drivers and teams respect human rights.”
Thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March last year demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination.
The pro-democracy movement was suppressed with the help of military forces brought in from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But small, low-level protests have persisted on an almost daily basis.
Hill said he was confident April’s race would not be used as a way for the Gulf kingdom to gloss over its social and political concerns.
"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.
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