MANAMA, April 18, 2013 (AFP) - Formula One moves to Bahrain this weekend, with the Grand Prix in the tiny, resource-rich Gulf kingdom again taking place against a backdrop of long-running dissent and continued protest.
The race was shelved in 2011 due to pro-democracy protests by the minority Shia Muslim population but resumed last year, despite calls for it to be axed due to claims of human rights abuses and heavy-handed police tactics against protesters.
The race itself passed off without incident, although four members of the Force India team were caught up in a petrol bomb attack and two returned home early.
The run-up to Sunday's race has again witnessed an increase in protests by hardline groups and a crackdown by the Bahrain authorities, prompting fresh calls for F1 to question its annual presence in the country on ethical grounds.
Young Shiite protesters who took the streets sounding drums have called the race "the Formula of blood".
Formula One supremo supremo Bernie Ecclestone, though, has dismissed concerns about holding the race in the country, while the Bahrain government has pledged to take "appropriate" measures to ensure security.
One notable absentee from the race will be Jean Todt, as he seeks re-election as president of world motorsport governing body the FIA, a number of newspapers, including Britain's The Guardian and The Times, have reported.
On the track, Germany's Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull leads the drivers' championship on 52 points from Finland's Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus (49) and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso (43), who won last week's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai with ease.
Mercedes team chief Ross Brawn, though, believes that the race will show whether they have a car fast enough to challenge Red Bull and Ferrari after Lewis Hamilton secured pole position and then finished a creditable third in China.
Brawn, who masterminded Michael Schumacher to his seven drivers' titles with Benetton and Ferrari, said he felt Mercedes were within reach of fighting for titles but needed to confirm their potential on Sunday.
"The pleasing thing is we've been to three races this year and we have not been bad. Bahrain will be the final one of the opening quartet that will tell us if we have a car that we can get to work at most places," he said.
"We seem to have but we have to lift the performance another two or three tenths compared to the opposition -- and we know it is a moving target."
Hamilton or Rosberg will fight to be ahead of Alonso until the end of the race.
Brawn told Autosport magazine that there were plenty of encouraging signs that Mercedes had a much better car this year.
Last year in Bahrain, Mercedes followed up German Nico Rosberg's stunning victory in China by taking fifth place in qualifying and the race. This year they are hoping for something better -- and the 2008 champion Hamilton, who has already delivered two podium finishes and a pole position this season, said the team was strong enough to challenge for the title.
The British driver, 12 points adrift of defending triple champion Vettel, said he felt sure he was capable of being involved in the title fight -- as long as they improved their pace from China.
Ferrari's team chief Stefano Domenicali was also confident following Alonso's triumph in Shanghai. The team's Ferrari F138 car was already more competitive than last year's F2012 at the same time, he added.
"The car seems better this year in terms of pure performance, even though that is not enough because we need to make it better and better," he explained.
On Sunday's race he said: "We have another situation in Bahrain with different conditions. We will see where the performance of our car relative to the others will be there."
Three former world champions have won this year's opening three races, while the once-dominant Red Bull team has been troubled by internal strife. Australian driver Mark Webber struggled in the season's opener in Melbourne -- his home race -- then was stunned in Malaysia when Vettel ignored team orders and snatched victory from him.
In China, he ran out of fuel in qualifying and then collided with Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso and lost a wheel.
That clash has brought Webber a grid penalty this weekend but team chief Christian Horner has backed him to make his mark.
"He will be fine. He is a tough competitor and he was driving very well," he added.
Horner also rejected all suggestions that the team was involved in any kind of conspiracy to favour Vettel and undermine Webber.