|Bahrain revs up its winning Formula
By Roy Kietzman » When a small Middle Eastern island of 650,000 people was awarded a Formula-1 race in 2004, motor racing fans might have been forgiven for their scepticism. This was, after all, not just any sporting event. This was the world’s greatest motor race, with a decades-long history and television viewership of over 300 million fans in 172 countries.
As a global spectacle, perhaps only the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup have greater drawing power.
Yet Bahrain not only pulled it off, the kingdom did it in some style: first completing the $150 million track ahead of time despite sweltering heat and sandstorms; then winning the Federation Internationale d’Automobile (FIA) award for the best organised of the season’s 19 races.
The coming 2006 F1 race will be Bahrain’s third, cementing the kingdom’s position as the Middle East’s motor racing hub.
Martin Whitaker, general manager of the Bahrain International Circuit, says Bahrain and Formula-1 are a winning combination, thanks to the total commitment of Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the BIC board of directors and the government.
Add to that what he terms “the incredibly friendly people of Bahrain” and “you have tens of thousands of visitors here who leave as ambassadors of Bahrain to their home countries”.
Whitaker, an Englishman who has attended over 250 F1 races and whose involvement in motor sports spans over 20 years, says Bahrain’s circuit is the perfect size for such an event. With seating for 34,000 in shaded grandstands and grand VIP viewing stands, “the ambience is tremendous.”
Though the equally new F1 circuit in China is definitely bigger and bolder than Bahrain’s, BIC demonstrates that size isn’t everything.
Hosting the race has put Bahrain on the map in more ways than one. Even people not greatly interested in motor sport have read and seen massive coverage about Bahrain, learning at the same time about the country. The economic impact of the event is undeniable. The 2004 F1 brought in an estimated $110 million into the coffers of Bahrain’s economy, says Whitaker, who expects that the ‘05 Grand Prix will show an even larger take.
Though in itself that makes the race a viable financial success as a stand-alone event for three days of the year, the BIC general manager points out, “F1 is a hook for the rest of the year when a Grand Prix 2000, F3, GT and Formula BMW are lined up in addition to car tests and launches, drag races, off-road trials and presentations. With that hook we can then promote the country’s other promising projects like Bahrain Financial Harbour, Durrat al Bahrain, Al Areen Desert Spa, World Trade Centre and Amwaj Islands. They all complement one another.”
Many corporations are considering BIC as the class venue for their own use, from dinners, conferences and launches to press conferences and presentations – a whole cornucopaea of activities that doesn’t permit BIC to close down after the organisers have tidied up after the Grand Prix.
“Through F1, we’re pushing boundaries, making an economic impact, helping to generate new business and bring in new customers," says Whitaker.
With a laser event and autographing sessions, he does promise that the 2006 race will be “a bit different” from 2005. Also look for a circuit with slightly different contours for the coming race.
As BIC evolves, Whitaker is already working closely with universities by making presentations to bring young talent on line in engineering, commercial and key logistical areas.
BIC will continue to expand over the years, incorporating a hotel or two, a business centre and secondary tracks and courses to assure that the circuit becomes a genuine hub for motor sports, not only in Bahrain but for the entire region.
The idea for an F1 circuit in the Middle East was born when the Crown Prince met up in Monza, Italy, in 1999 with racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart who, in turn, introduced Shaikh Salman to Bernie Ecclestone, the acknowledged patriarch of F1. Since no F1 circuit existed in the Middle East, the idea seemed worth exploring, recalls Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, who was president of Bahrain Motorsport Association from 1995 to 2000 when he was involved in dozens of local rallies.
The Crown Prince and Shaikh Fawaz discussed the merits of the concept, and His Highness, as chairman of the Economic Development Board, commissioned EDB to look into the F1 idea and its potential impact on the economy and society. Following studies and countless discussions, Shaikh Salman decided to move on to the next step: the actual design of a F1 circuit, and Ecclestone recommended German firm Tilke.
Tilke had designed F1 circuits in such cities as Barcelona and Malaga, Spain, as well as the one in Shanghai, China. The brief to Tilke said the Bahrain circuit had to incorporate some of the characteristic designs and styling of this country. And, sure enough, they delivered with a distinctive and aesthetically pleasing racing circuit.
Just crunching figures, Shaikh Fawaz said, “We can see clearly the benefits in visitor numbers and media exposure. Radio Television France reported that their viewership levels for the Bahrain F1 jumped from 12.5 million in 2004 to 18 million in 2005 where for RTF Formula-1 has now become the number-one sporting event, overtaking the European Football Cup in the number of telespectators.
“On the ground in Bahrain, we witnessed in 2005 a 60 per cent increase in German visitors, for instance, over the previous year.”
With American, Asian and European drivers hogging the F1 spotlight, can a Bahraini Grand Prix driver be far behind?
“The talent is definitely there,” Shaikh Fawaz believes. When BIC and sponsor Bahrain Petroleum Company put out a call to train drivers for motor racing with a particular focus on F1, hundreds of applicants responded. These will be shortlisted to the 10 best who will then go through rigorous training, theoretical and practical, to groom trainees who can take the incredible demands of motor sport and make a career of it.
“Now that the government of Bahrain has seen through the realisation of this monumental project, in a coming phase, we’re looking at the privatisation of BIC as part of a master plan and are talking with a group of investors,” Shaikh Fawaz said.
“The off-round track is also a first in the region, offering car manufacturers a splendid opportunity to test their car’s capabilities under challenging road conditions.”
Actually, the off-road course, titled Adventure Drive Arabia, opened in 2005 and offers a track for four-wheel drives and rally driving to test the toughest nerves, on hard and loose surfaces. I had the opportunity to experience it first-hand. As we climbed aboard a 4WD, we rumbled over rocks and gravel paths, then sat atop a hill for which I was grateful that we just looked down the gravity-defying perpendicular slope rather than lumbering down.
It was scary, and I hadn’t mustered up my James Bond courage to sit out the thrill of off-road driving. A team of experts gives instructions on how to take the slopes, the oasis and dozens of types of terrain – from steep inclines and axle twisters to camel humps and even stairs – guaranteed to give you a healthy rush of adrenaline.
Adventure Drive Arabia is BIC’s best-kept secret, an exciting course for car-test pros or a driver with a sense of pulse-raising adventure in his veins.
Though Barcelona succeeds in selling 110,000 tickets and China has spent double what Bahrain has for a far larger circuit, Shaikh Fawaz says the organisers are “confident that visitors, FIA officials and teams are happy with the remarkable facilities at BIC and the entertainment value around the races”.
Just look at the 50-year history of the circuit in Europe. Could Bahrain match their expectations?
“Actually, we did,” says Shaikh Fawaz with an air of quiet modesty, as the FIA attested after the first event.
There’s no doubt about it: F1, with its global showcase, has absolutely helped change the map of Bahrain as well as energising investment plans and massive development projects.
The kingdom’s economy is expanding faster than ever, visitor numbers are going through the roof and flyovers, new highways, bridges, super ports and causeways are changing the landscape.
Though BIC’s own role in the economic boom is doubtless unquantifiable, it’s still undeniable that F1 has made a difference in putting Bahrain firmly on the map, open for business and drawing an international spotlight on the kingdom, its history, achievements and heritage and that it’s a small country capable of doing big things.
Formula-1 is leading Bahrain’s drive into the future.
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