One had to scan the desert terrain carefully yesterday for any sign of spectators at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Even as anti-government protesters clashed with heavily armed security police, with at least one citizen perishing in the process, Formula One's ring-master, Bernie Ecclestone, was trying – and failing – to argue that the demonstrations were nothing but a difference of opinion between rival parties, akin to the Conservatives and Labour falling out over National Health Service cuts.

Sorry, Bernie, but the last time I checked, the pasty tax wasn't costing dissenters their lives and Amnesty International wasn't highlighting details of the routine abuses of human rights throughout British society, yet which have become a daily feature of existence for Bahrain's citizenry.

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Of course, the execrable Ecclestone has form in these affairs. And FIA president Jean Todt was scarcely any more convincing in his responses, while attempting to justify the decision to bring a motor race to a country where the vast majority of the population have far more pressing concerns than tyre strategies and pit-lane manoeuvres.

One could sympathise with the drivers and admire the composure of such gritty individuals as Paul Di Resta, whose Force India team didn't even participate in Friday's second practice session, so that they could return to the safety of their hotel before nightfall. Di Resta duly maintained his sangfroid when the main event commenced, speeding to a career-best F1 result and, for the first time, emerging as leading Briton in the standings, while the McLaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button were burdened by a variety of mechanical problems and botched pit-stops.

Yet, regardless of the fluctuating fortunes which happened at the circuit, allied to the resurgence of Lotus, and the fashion in which Sky TV – another organisation controlled by an autocratic octogenarian – concentrated on accentuating the positive, their coverage merely papered over the cracks of a queasy few days in a moral vacuum.

The saddest aspect is that those who perpetuate grands prix as a milieu for overgrown schoolboys, and testosterone-laced fellows with a Clarkson world view, are fatally undermining what could develop into one of the most thrilling championship battles in years. We all know that Ecclestone wants to take races to wherever politicians will be happy to invest in major infrastructure and bankroll capital projects – and to hell with environmental or ethical considerations. And one might wonder why there weren't more questions of this nature before last weekend's Chinese GP, given the totalitarian excesses and anti-democratic policies of the politburo in Beijing.

Bahrain offered a clear opportunity for sport to take a stand, to repeat last year's postponement and for the administrators to deliver the message that they were not interested in lending succour to, let alone be dragged into a propaganda coup for, the country's embattled government.

F1 failed the test miserably. And, irrespective of those who cling to the absurd notion that sport and politics don't mix, that is why Sebastian Vettel's triumph was the hollowest of victories. Anti-apartheid campaigners used to proclaim the mantra: "No normal sport in an abnormal society". Forty years on, it appears that Ecclestone and Todt are still in denial.