Formula 1 Season to Start in Australia After Bahrain Calls Off Grand Prix

The Formula One championship will begin in Australia next month after Bahrain called off the season-opening race because of anti-government protests in the Gulf state.

The Bahrain Grand Prix, which was scheduled for March 13, had been in doubt for more than a week following the civil unrest. No decision has been made on rescheduling the race, Formula One chief executive officer Bernie Ecclestone said. The 2011 season will instead begin March 27 in Melbourne.

“We felt it was important for the country to focus on immediate issues of national interest and leave the hosting of Bahrain’s Formula 1 race to a later date,” Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa said in a statement yesterday.

Arab governments are cracking down on pro-democracy activists after uprisings that toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt spread to Bahrain, Libya and Algeria.

Bahrain’s army fired tear gas, buckshot and rubber bullets on protesters in the capital, Manama, last week. At least five people were killed in Bahrain and more than 100 people were being treated at the Salmaniya Hospital after clashes four days ago, said Ahmed Jamal, president of the Bahrain medical society.

“It is clear that to race in Bahrain at this time would be inappropriate given the current circumstances,” Adam Parr, chairman of the Williams F-1 team, said in a statement. Teams agreed to switch a four-day test session scheduled to start March 3 in Bahrain to Barcelona five days later, Parr said.

The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, Formula One’s governing body, said it supported the decision to postpone the race, which was the outcome of “close cooperation” between the Paris-based FIA, Formula One Management, the Bahrain Motor Federation and the Bahrain International Circuit.

‘Sad’ Withdrawal

The Crown Prince informed Ecclestone of the decision to call off the event in a telephone call, his statement said.

“It is sad that Bahrain has had to withdraw from the race,” Ecclestone said in the statement. “We wish the whole nation well as they begin to heal their country. We look forward to being back in Bahrain soon.”

Bahrain has hosted Formula One since 2004 at a purpose- built $150 million racetrack in the desert south of Manama.

Australian driver Mark Webber, who questioned last weekend whether the race should go ahead, welcomed the postponement.

“The right decision was made, in light of what is going on, so we look forward to Melbourne instead,” Webber, who finished third for Red Bull in the 2010 world championship, said in a team statement. “It’s my home race and I’m looking forward to it. We’re in good shape as a team.”

Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit last hosted the season opener two years ago before being replaced as the first race by Bahrain.

“We will now amend our logistics accordingly and will get ready for Australia,” Eric Boullier, managing director of the Lotus Renault GP team, said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Duff in Madrid at aduff4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Elser at celser@bloomberg.net

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