The paddock at the Sakhir circuit was in the clammy grip of a grim apprehension on Thursday night following the flight home of two members of the Force India team and amid reports of escalating violence in the capital, Manama.
A data engineer and a radio man were the two Force India men to catch an early flight home, one of whom was in a car forced to a halt when a petrol bomb exploded beside it on Wednesday night.
There are fears of more violence tomorrow, since the time after Friday evening prayers is normally the most volatile. riday also marks the start of the "Three days of rage" by the pro-democracy demonstrators.
According to an Associated Press report, nervous shop owners were closing their doors as security forces fanned out across Manama "in an attempt to quell widening unrest". Tear gas and stun grenades were used to disperse an angry gathering of about 700 close to the British Embassy. There is a general feeling that if anyone is hurt this weekend – at the circuit or beyond – it will be the fault of Formula One and the sport's decision to stage this race. Others are baffled that there is no advice from the Foreign Office against travelling to the grand prix. The mood of the circuit was summed up by the Force India driver Nico Hülkenberg, who said: "We shouldn't have been put in this position."
No one, it seems, wants to be here, apart from the race organisers, although the Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel struck a crassly insensitive note when he said: "It is not a big problem and I am happy once we start testing tomorrow because then we can start worrying about the stuff that really matters like tyre temperatures, cars …"
When he was told that a lot of people did not want Sunday's race to take place, he added: "I haven't met them. Maybe it is because I only arrived this morning. I haven't seen much of what people are talking about."
Reports were emerging on Thursday that non-F1 journalists – including those from Associated Press and Agence France Presse – were being denied entry to Bahrain. Stuart Ramsay of Sky News tweeted that he had been refused entry: "Bahrain govt welcomes f1 but not independent journalists who actually understand the complexity of this issue." The situation is all the more delicate given Sky Sports's lucrative seven-year deal to show F1 from this season.
Surprisingly, since it was late in the afternoon, another world champion, Lewis Hamilton, claimed he had not heard about the Force India incident while his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button said: "I'm not going to get into the details of it. You are here interviewing me as a driver and that's exactly what I am going to talk about – motor racing. The outside issues, I'm not going to talk about."
The remaining members of the Force India team left the circuit before darkness fell – and they did so wearing civvies instead of the normal team colours that identify them as part of the grand prix. Hülkenberg's team-mate, the Scottish driver Paul Di Resta, said: "It's obviously an uncomfortable situation. Some people in the team have been a bit negative about it. I'm totally comfortable with their decision.
"I feel comfortable. If there is a race going on, I definitely want to be part of it. We're here to do one thing. We need to see where it goes. It's early. It's Thursday. Things will develop, for the good or the bad. But there are some big men in Formula One making decisions. I hope they get more actively involved in it and guide us through it."
In the offices of Force India on Thursday afternoon there was a security meeting between Bob Fernley, the team's deputy team principal, Andy Stevenson, their sporting director, John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of London's Metropolitan police, who is an adviser here, Martin Whitaker, the chief consultant to the circuit, and Pasquale Lattuneddu of Formula One Management.
"We just want to make sure the right precautions are being taken," Fernley said. "Like other teams, we've had requests from MPs to withdraw from the race.
"If the British government had a clear directive on it, as they did last year, then it would put a direct perspective on it. But they are comfortable saying it is a safe environment to be in, and there are no issues from their point of view.
"We expect a few more protests in the next few days. We have employed extra security for extra comfort and reassurance." There is, though, a resigned and fearful feeling that things will get even worse in the next two days.
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