Just 16 months ago it was no more than a 400-acre patch of dreary desert and a gleam in the eye of Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, crown prince of Bahrain. This week, a workforce of 2,500 were laying the final areas of tarmac for access roads, fitting out pits and paddock buildings, laying lawns and planting trees and shrubs. In six weeks' time, Bahrain's new, £85m international motor racing circuit will be reverberating to the Middle East's first ever Formula One grand prix.

Silverstone, self-declared "home" of the British grand prix might look on the Bahrain complex and, if not tremble, at least feel deep unease.

In terms of where grands prix are actually held, it sends the clearest possible message that F1's two power brokers, promoter Bernie Ecclestone and Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile president Max Mosley, are not necessarily bluffing when they say that in a sport where the 350m global television audience is all, F1 no longer needs Europe anything like as much as Europe needs F1.

It is not just that the Bahrain circuit, a few miles south of the capital of Manama, sets - in truly spectacular fashion - a new benchmark for F1 in terms of venue design and facilities.

A short drive across the island, work is starting on Bahrain Financial Harbour, a vast £700m financial centre with a stock exchange designed further to reinforce Bahrain's status as the banking and finance centre of the Gulf. To another side of the circuit, an almost equally big site is earmarked for a £500m development programme covering commercial, retailing and tourism-related activities.

After a period of economic uncertainty between the two Iraqi wars, "Bahrain is undergoing a great renaissance", says Peter Panayiotou, chief operating officer of investment bank Gulf Finance House. "In fact, all the Gulf states are booming while the rest of the world is sitting on its rear end."

The whole region, says Panayiotou, has become awash with liquidity looking for a home. That will not be lost on cash-strapped team owner Eddie Jordan or other principals of the forever finance-hungry F1 circus when it comes to town. Nor will it be lost on more than 1,000 of the world's media. Nor yet on F1's big corporate sponsors flying to the island to monitor their four-wheeled investment exercises in global branding.

F1 can sniff out finance better than almost any entity on earth. And behind the scenes, Bahrain's ruling elite will be subtly easing their path to finding it.

Towering over the main paddock complex is a multi-storey, luxuriously equipped VIP centre with 360-degree vision over the track. On grand prix weekend, it will be filled with 200 of the Gulf region's most senior business and political figures. It is here that the hitherto largely separate worlds of F1 and the Gulf will most closely meet and mingle. As a networking opportunity it will be hard to beat, says Shaikh Fawaz Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, chairman of the circuit and the country's de facto minister for youth and sport.

Where such contacts might eventually lead, for the moment, is anyone's guess. But Sheikh Fawaz is not alone in suggesting that this large and wealthy region could aspire to become, like Europe now, host to not one grand prix, but several.

To some extent, that would involve a shift in regional thinking. When Ecclestone first began to look for more events outside Europe, Dubai saw itself in competition with Bahrain as possible host. But if April's event is the success intended, some see it as the potential catalyst for Dubai and possibly Abu Dhabi or Oman to create a tripartite regional leg of the F1 world championship.

Shaikh Fawaz and Shaikh Salman Bin Isa Al Kalifa, the circuit's director of public affairs , are convinced that, for Bahrain, the grand prix will have a big impact on both the economy and how the world beyond the Middle East will come to view the region. All £82m of the circuit's costs has been put up by the government in that belief.

While no one will give details of Bahrain's contract with Ecclestone, it is understood to secure the grand prix for the island at least until the end of the decade. In the meantime, the expected influx of well over 40,000 attendees for the first grand prix is expected to inject up to £50m into the local economy.

The spectre at the feast, inevitably, is speculation that the grand prix might be regarded as an irresistable target of opportunity for al-Qaeda. Government officials insist although somewhat blandly and without detail, that they see no significant threat and that the security situation is well in hand. Bahrain's situation as an island makes the task much easier.

But the recent unexplained presence of black-clad special forces in and around the capital suggests that the government is leaving nothing to chance.



Formula-1 fever grips Bahrain

All Revved Up




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