By Alan Baldwin
MANAMA (Reuters) - Jean Todt, the head of Formula One's governing body, will not attend this weekend's controversial Bahrain Grand Prix but officials played down the significance of his absence on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the International Automobile Federation (FIA) said the Frenchman had never had Bahrain on his schedule after being at the first two races of the season in Australia and Malaysia.
Todt's next Formula One appearance would be in Canada in June, he added.
Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone is due to attend a race that is set to go ahead despite calls for it to be cancelled because of continuing civil unrest in the tiny Gulf kingdom.
The 82-year-old billionaire said this week he was willing to meet the opposition.
The race was called off in 2011, following a bloody crackdown by the authorities on an anti-government uprising that left at least 35 dead.
The situation has improved since then, with the Sunni-led government and Shi'ite-dominated opposition resuming reconciliation talks in February for the first time since 2011, even if little progress has been reported.
Most foreign visitors to Manama during grand prix week would notice plenty of publicity for the race at Sakhir and few signs of unrest, other than a strong police presence along the highways.
Todt was criticized last week by Britain's 1996 world champion Damon Hill for failing to take a clear stance on the race and to demonstrate that Formula One was sensitive to the situation.
"The question really is whether or not F1 going to Bahrain is actually going to be... furthering brutal repression of people by being an endorsement of the way in which repression has been meted out," he said.
"(Last year) I took the view that the sport and the governing body of the sport should be ensuring that they are not hijacked for the wrong reasons. I'm not entirely sure that they've cleared that point to be honest."
Hill said Todt, who attended last year's race and told reporters at the time that it would have been a mistake for the sport not to come, was wrong if he believed the best approach was to say nothing.
"He has not said anything that has distanced the sport from things it would find distasteful and upsetting, which I believe everybody in the sport would actually like to do," he said.
Todt has kept a low profile throughout his presidency, distancing himself from the more confrontational style of predecessor Max Mosley who courted the media and rarely shied away from a debate.
The Frenchman, who once ran the Ferrari F1 team as Michael Schumacher's boss, has attended few grands prix and has devoted more of his time to road safety campaigns and travelling the world to visit member federations.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)