MANAMA, April 20, 2012 (AFP) - The Force India team on Friday afternoon pulled out of the second free practice session for this weekend's controversial Bahrain Grand Prix on safety grounds.
Instead of running their cars at the Sakhir circuit in the desert 32 kilometres south of capital city Manama, the team concentrated on setting them up in readiness for Saturday's final practice and qualifying sessions.
The team issued a statement, normally delayed until an hour or more after the second practice session, confirming their withdrawal and concentrating on reaction to their efforts in the opening session in the morning.
The statement said: "Sahara Force India completed a busy morning practice session in Bahrain with Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg each completing 26 laps respectively. Both drivers used the soft and medium tyres during the session.
"For logistical reasons the team will run a rescheduled programme for the rest of the weekend, which will result in the team missing second practice to ensure the most competitive performance in FP3, qualifying and the race."
Deputy team principal Bob Fernley told reporters: "We've got a rescheduled programme in place to give emotional support to the team. There's a balance between making sure we're meeting the needs of the team for a fully supported Bahrain Grand Prix. We're running a full programme for qualifying and the race."
As Force India clarified their position and confirmed they were pulling out to make sure they can return to their hotel before nightfall, the Sauber team confirmed they ran close to an incident involving marked protesters on
Four members of the Force India team had been caught up in a confrontation between protesters and police on Wednesday evening when a petrol bomb exploded close to their car. Two members of the team, one a contractor, chose to leave Bahrain on Thursday.
In a statement, Sauber said: "Yesterday (Thursday) night at 2030 (local time) a minibus of the Sauber F1 Team had left the circuit to go back to the Novotel in Manama.
"At 2050 (local time) the 12 mechanics being on that bus noticed fire on the medial strip of the highway. The traffic was slow, cars had their hazard flashers on.
"On the opposite lane there was no traffic. The team members saw a few masked people running from there over to their lane where a bottle was burning as well.
"The mini bus moved to the very right side of the highway and went passed the situation. No one from the Sauber F1 Team was hurt."
As second practice continued as usual for the rest of the teams, Formula One's chief executive and commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone appeared to remain unmoved about the escalating safety concerns when he spoke to reporters in the paddock.
Ecclestone said it was not in his power to cancel the race. He said: "I can't call this race off. It is nothing to do with us, the race.
"We are here, we have an agreement to be here and we are here. The national sporting authority in this country can ask the FIA if they want to call the race off."
Ecclestone said he did not understand why Force India was so worried about safety -- adding that he had personally offered to drive with the team from the circuit if they wanted reassurance.
"They have asked and been told they can have security if they want it," he said. "I don't know if people are targeting them for some reason, I don't know - I hope not because none of the other teams seem to have a problem.
"So maybe they have had a message and are being targeted for something - it may be nothing to do with being in this country, maybe it is something else."
Amid wildfire and unconfirmed rumours of clashes between protesters and the police, a Brazilian journalist confirmed that he had seen police fire tear gas at protestors on the highway back to Manama on Thursday evening.
Ecclestone also blamed the media for the intense interest in events surrounding the Grand Prix.
He said: "You guys love it. What we really need is an earthquake or something like that so you can write about that. I think you guys want a story -- and it is a good story -- and if there isn't a story, you make it up as usual. So nothing changes."