MANAMA - Formula One cars roared around the Bahrain circuit on Friday in the first free practice, with drivers pressing on with preparations despite tight security after clashes between police and anti-government protesters.
Reporters arriving at the Sakhir circuit had to go through airport-style security at the entrance to the desert track south of the capital Manama, with bags passed through scanners and individual checks.
Scores of police cars - a Reuters reporter counted 79 including an armoured patrol vehicle in the 32 km stretch between central Manama and the circuit - were parked or circulating on the highway south.
The government hopes to use the Grand Prix as a way of showing that life is back to normal after a democracy movement launched an Arab Spring-inspired uprising last year. The protests were initially crushed, but were not stamped out; demonstrations and clashes are frequent.
There were no immediate reports from teams of any trouble overnight after a petrol bomb exploded near a team van on Wednesday evening.
Despite the best efforts of teams and drivers to focus on the race and ignore debate about the political situation beyond the metal fences of the paddock, security was a major focus.
"Everything's fine for us, we are all in good shape," Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley told Reuters as his cars, driven by Germany's Nico Hulkenberg and Britain's Paul Di Resta, were the first in track.
"The guys are happy, no issues."
Two Force India staff, one a data engineer and the other a contractor, left Bahrain on Thursday to return to Britain after a car that one of them was travelling in was stopped on the highway by the flaming petrol bomb.
It was the first incident directly involving one of the 12 teams preparing for Sunday's race, the fourth round of the championship, that local rights activists and anti-government demonstrators want cancelled.
"We had a perfect trip back," Fernley said of Thursday night's drive back to the hotel.
The race is the first in Bahrain since 2010. Last year's was cancelled after a bloody crackdown on unrest in the tiny Gulf kingdom.
The grandstands remained largely empty, although organisers say many local fans make the decision to attend on the spur of the moment.
The circuit offers one day passes for Friday only, the start of the weekend in Bahrain which is also often a flashpoint for protests after prayers, since Sunday is a working day.
One demonstration is scheduled to take place near the circuit later on Friday.
The decision by Formula One's governing body, the Paris-based FIA, and 81-year-old commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone to go ahead with this year's has been heavily criticised both in Bahrain and abroad due to the country's human rights record.
Drivers, staying in luxury hotels and then busying themselves in the bubble of the paddock, have mostly avoided commenting on the situation.
"I haven't seen anyone throwing bombs. I don't think it's that bad," Red Bull's double world champion Sebastian Vettel told reporters after arriving at the circuit on Thursday. "I think it's a lot of hype."