By Alan Baldwin
MANAMA (Reuters) - Formula One's most controversial race, the Bahrain Grand Prix with its simmering backdrop of teargas and petrol bombs, might just give Mark Webber something to celebrate on Sunday.
Red Bull's Australian has had a pretty thin time of it recently but Sunday's race, in a tiny Gulf kingdom troubled by civil unrest since a 2011 uprising, will be the 200th grand prix of his career.
The 36-year-old has been outspoken about Bahrain in the past and would doubtless feel happier hitting the milestone somewhere else. But any strong result will be a bonus after last weekend in China and the previous 'team orders' storm in Malaysia.
"Yes folks really looking forward to the next GP, it's my 200th appearance," he said on Twitter this week. "Jeez it goes quick, pumped for the rest of the year."
Webber has yet to stand on the podium in Bahrain but triple champion team mate Sebastian Vettel, the German who snatched victory from him in Malaysia by ignoring an order not to overtake, was the winner last year.
In China, the Australian ran out of fuel in qualifying and lost a wheel in the race after having to start from the pitlane and then being involved in a collision.
Vettel leads the standings with 52 points to 49 for Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen and 43 for Ferrari's Fernando Alonso. Webber has just 26 after four races.
Formula One's travelling circus began arriving from China on Monday, greeted by friendly smiles at the airport and newspaper reports of explosions in town overnight that marked an escalation in protests against the sport.
Away from the circuit, in more rundown areas and majority Shi'ite villages, teargas-firing police and protesters throwing petrol bombs clash almost nightly in low-level violence that threatens to flare up in race week.
There have again been calls by campaigners at home and abroad for the race to be canceled, as it was in 2011, but commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone has made clear that is not going to happen.
Webber was one of the few drivers to speak out last year, when there was far more noise made about the decision to proceed with the grand prix.
"Ultimately we are all human. We have morals. We have ways we see things," he said at the time.
Alonso won in China, his team's first success of the season, and the Spaniard has the best record of any driver in Bahrain after three previous wins including his first for Ferrari.
The third different driver in three races to win this year, Alonso is the bookmakers' favorite to spray the rosewater - there being no champagne on the Bahrain podium - after a back-to-back victory.
"I expect a tough race again," he said.
"In Bahrain I think we will see different conditions and who knows how competitive anyone can be. But definitely ... from the races that we finished this year the car seems to be able to be on the podium, so we hope to be on the podium again."
So too does Lewis Hamilton after taking two third places in three races for Mercedes since the 2008 world champion left McLaren.
"We're not quite there yet, but we're not far away," he said.
"I came into the year with everyone saying it was the worst decision I could possibly ever make in my life," he told reporters. "And we're getting these results.
"We're doing the job. We've got a lot of work to do to improve reliability and pick up the pace but we're on it ... Bahrain hopefully will be a better weekend for us."
Raikkonen is chasing his 21st successive points finish, which would leave him just three short of Michael Schumacher's all-time record.
The 2007 champion had his first podium with Lotus in Bahrain last year, when he finished second, and hopes to go one better.
"I like it. I've had some nice races there and picked up some good points although I've never won," he said. "Wherever you look around the track you can just see sand in the distance and you notice it in the paddock too.
"It's a circuit where I've never won before, so maybe this year I'll change that."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Sonia Oxley)