When Formula One drivers performed their usual parade around the circuit on the back of a flatbed truck ahead of Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix, the seats they were waving at were empty. Few inside the Formula One bubble had any contact with the demonstrations in villages around the capital, which saw nightly clashes between demonstrators hurling Molotov cocktails and police firing teargas and birdshot.
Demonstrators denounced the Grand Prix as a lavish publicity stunt for a government that crushed Arab Spring protests. Their banners depicted race car drivers as riot police. Bahrainis mostly just stayed away.
Formula One earns its money from TV rights and corporate sponsors, not from selling tickets. But a government that wants to show that life is returning to normal had spared no expense to attract punters.
There was a rock music stage. Kids could enjoy tents for circus performers, arts and crafts, and musical theatre.
"It's like Disneyland," said one foreigner working in the stalls. "This is the best entertainment village I've seen in a long time. They've really pushed the boat out for obvious reasons."
Still, the TV cameras on the front of the cars beamed to the world the unmistakable images of empty bleachers as the racers roared past the grandstands.
With organizers doing what they could to attract crowds, even super-elite status had lost some of its cachet. Regulars at the normally overflowing Paddock Club, reserved for big-ticket corporate sponsors and their guests, said attendance had fallen through the floor.
No-longer-so-coveted Paddock Club passes were even falling into the hands of ordinary mortals – unaware, for example, that access includes free gourmet meals.
"You can see people wandering around with Paddock Club passes and eating at the fast food stalls. They clearly don't know what to do with them," said the foreigner at the stalls.