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Formula One lives in a Bahrain bubble

By Alan Baldwin

MANAMA (Reuters) - While demonstrators hurled petrol bombs at the police a half hour's drive away, the only smoke that reached the Bahrain Grand Prix paddock on the eve of Sunday's race was laid on by the organizers at the "relaxed Bahraini-style barbecue".

Formula One's Bahrain experience has been a tale of two parallel universes, with the drivers and team bosses staying in luxury hotels and safely sheltered inside their paddock bubble of familiar routine, while running battles are fought on the streets and in villages.

Protesters, mainly from the Shi'ite Muslim majority who say they are oppressed by a Sunni ruling family, have been clashing with police nightly, denouncing the Formula One Grand Prix here as a lavish spectacle glorifying a repressive government.

Marchers have held up banners depicting Formula One race car drivers as riot police, bashing protesters.

But for those within the sport's entourage who have not ventured out to see a different reality, talk of petrol bombs, death and torture might as well be from another planet.

"THE STUFF THAT REALLY MATTERS: TYRE TEMPERATURES"

Red Bull's world champion Sebastian Vettel said shortly after arrival on Thursday that he thought much of what was being reported was hype.

He looked forward to getting in the car and dealing with the "stuff that really matters - tyre temperatures, cars."

Added the German, who will start the race on pole position: "I think generally being in the paddock it seems to be no problem."

At Saturday evening's barbecue, rows of palm trees down the middle of the paddock were lit up with red and white lights in the colors of the Bahraini flag. Groups of Formula One people chilled out under the stars with a glass of wine.

There was traditional music for anyone in the mood, with work over for the day and the cars locked up until Sunday morning.

Members of the media were able to get out to cover the unrest, although the government denied visas to journalists who normally cover Mid-East politics rather than motor sports.

Scores of police cars line the broad highway on the morning 30km drive from the skyscrapers of central Manama to the track in the dusty south. But it has been perfectly possible for most to travel to and from the circuit without seeing more than one or two armored vehicles and encountering no demonstrations.

With the demonstrations mainly confined to Shi'ite areas outside the city centre, much of Manama is experiencing business as usual, with people going to shopping malls and tourists sunning themselves by hotel pools.

Inside the race circuit, behind the fences and past the electronic turnstiles that keep out anyone without a pass, Formula One is on familiar territory - apart from the heat, palm trees and a reduced presence in the media centre.

Teams have gone about their regular activities with drivers holding media briefings and discussing tyres, tactics and technical issues.

Attempts to get them to discuss the political situation have largely failed, although team principals did say they felt "comfortable" with security measures when asked by an official questioner at a news conference organized by the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA).

FIA President Jean Todt broke a 10-day media silence on Saturday to say that he was sorry "about what has been reported" rather than expressing any doubts about giving the green light to the race at a time when the Gulf kingdom was still undergoing so much turmoil.

"I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country," added the Frenchman.

There was also some resentment within the paddock at the intervention of politicians, including British lawmakers who called for a boycott by teams and sponsors at the 11th hour.

"We were committed to this race and after the race we will make a proper judgment of what happened and come to a conclusion," Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn told reporters.

"I find it very frustrating that politicians in the UK were saying that we should withdraw once we got here. Why didn't they say anything beforehand?"

Martin Whitmarsh, whose McLaren team is half owned by Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat and who has Britain's 2008 and 2009 world champions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button as his drivers, agreed.

"I don't think it's helpful to wake up this morning and hear we shouldn't be here when we are already here, so I endorse what Ross says," he said on Saturday.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Peter Graff)