MANAMA  - Formula One's carefree millionaires come face-to-face with bloody, civil strife this weekend when the sport defies large sections of international opinion by racing at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The fourth round of the world championship returns to the Sakhir circuit, a year after it was cancelled due to the bitter political and sectarian strife which continues to rock the Gulf kingdom. Tensions have been mounting ahead of Sunday's race. Protests have seen hundreds of people carrying banners calling for a boycott and a demonstration was staged near Bahrain's international airport as the teams began arriving in the Sunni-ruled kingdom. "Our demand: Freedom not Formula," read one banner. "We are human without rights," said another.

The F1 circus has closed ranks, however, following the decision to proceed with the race taken last weekend by the sport's ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA). Former world champion Jenson Button spoke for the majority when he claimed he had confidence in the organisers. "I trust in the FIA that they know all the information so we have to trust in their decision. I don't think they will ever want to put us at risk. They do a lot on safety for drivers," said the McLaren driver. "That's a priority for them. If everything is straightforward and nothing happens, it's not even going to be in the back of my mind at all."

But Australia's Mark Webber said the extra security arrangements laid on by the besieged authorities can't guarantee total serenity. "I've tried to watch the news to get a balanced view of the Bahrain situation," said Webber at last weekend's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. "I want to race but you can't ignore what's going on and we all hope things go smoothly."

He added: "It's a difficult decision. There will be added security, but not everybody can have that and it doesn't make me feel comfortable." Mercedes motorsport chief Norbert Haug, who saw his driver Nico Rosberg claim victory in China, was careful to avoid any comment on the decision to go ahead with this weekend's race. FIA president Jean Todt has been conspicuous by his silence on the issue while the sport's chief executive and commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone was reported as swearing and storming out of interviews last weekend in Shanghai.  Four days after seeing 26-year-old Rosberg score his first Formula One victory in his 111st race, and deliver Mercedes their first win as a works team in 57 years, Haug played down high expectations of another triumph this Sunday. "We are keeping our feet on the ground because this year more than ever before in the history of Formula 1, small details can take you from hero to zero -- just three tenths of a second separated P1 to P11 in qualifying last Saturday," said Haug.

"Last Sunday was a milestone for us, but we know how quickly things can change in this business. So we are staying cool and we are keeping our focus on the fourth race of the year in Bahrain and that is it." He added: "Our newly-formed Silver Arrows team made its debut at this circuit two years -- and 41 races -- ago."

"And since then, everybody has worked tirelessly to make ours a winning team -- and our performance in China provided a first taste of success." Rosberg became the third different winner in this season's opening three races when he came home more than 20 seconds clear of Button and his third-placed McLaren team-mate, and 2008 champion, Lewis Hamilton, who leads the title race with 45 points ahead of Button on 43.

Defending world champion Sebastian Vettel finished fifth last weekend behind Red Bull team-mate Webber, the same positions they occupy in the championship in which Rosberg is now sixth. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is third for Ferrari with 37 points ahead of Webber on 36 and Vettel on 28, but he conceded that he and his team have little hope of a triumph in the Gulf on Sunday.

"I think we are in for another difficult weekend at Sakhir," he told the Ferrari website. "It is only natural, partly because of the track characteristics and also because the car is the same one we had in Shanghai. I know we have a good record in Bahrain -- the team has won four times and I have won three -- but the past means nothing. This weekend for us is all about damage limitation." Those sentiments summed up the feeling of most of the F1 fraternity as they prepared for a testing weekend on and off the circuit.