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MANAMA (Reuters) - The head of Formula One's governing body was unrepentant on Saturday about the decision to race in Bahrain and said the sport would suffer no lasting damage to its image despite worldwide condemnation.
Televised images of streets ablaze, with masked youths hurling petrol bombs while police fire teargas and birdshot at them, threaten to embarrass the sport and the global brands that back the series.
"I am sorry about what has been reported. I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country," International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Jean Todt told a small group of reporters at the Sakhir circuit ahead of Sunday's race.
"I feel F1 is very strong. I think it is a very strong brand, and I think all the people among the teams to whom I have been speaking are very happy.
"I was even told it would have been a mistake not to come," added the former Ferrari team principal, who arrived in Bahrain from Kazakhstan after also attending last weekend's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai.
Todt has been criticized by some media for keeping a low profile as debate rages about the wisdom of giving the green light for the multi-billion-dollar sport to race in the troubled Gulf kingdom.
Saturday's comments marked the first time he had spoken to the media in at least 10 days and came after the already tense local situation was further inflamed by the body of a protester being found on a rooftop after overnight clashes with police.
The Bahraini government has spent $40 million to host the race, hoping to show that normal life has returned after it cracked down harshly on Arab Spring demonstrations last year.
Todt said most senior figures in the sport, some of whose teams have significant Middle Eastern partners or investors, supported the decision to race.
"That is what I have been told by most of the team principals here. Unfortunately I did not see so many of those quotes in the media," he said.
"I respect the media, I respect what they write, but it is not what I have seen and what I was told by a lot of people to whom I have been talking."
Todt repeated the view of many in Formula One, including commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, that the sport was not involved in politics or religion.
He said he had spoken to embassies, foreign ministers and organizations, adding: "All the recommendations are that it was absolutely no problem to be in Bahrain, so there was no reason to change our mind."
Asked why, if Formula One was above politics, the local organizers were publicizing the event under the slogan "UniF1ed", the Frenchman replied: "It is a sporting event. Then if the sporting event is helping to heal the situation it is very good for the sport."
Todt said only a small section of Bahraini society was against the race going ahead and the majority should not suffer as a result of their opposition.
"Do we have to penalize 80 or 90 percent of the population because 10 percent are against? My answer is no," he said.
"Unfortunately there is much more media attention, again rightly or wrongly it is not for me to judge, on emphasizing this minority."
Editing by Clare Fallon