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Bahrain revved up about
staging Formula-1 race
As a media guest of the Williams Renault Racing Team, I had the opportunity to cover the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy in 1994 and 1995. I was working at Bahrains Gulf Daily News then, and the Williams teams invitation was aimed at raising the level of interest in the sport in this region.
Who would believe that just 10 years later, Bahrain would be hosting its very own Grand Prix, the first country in the Middle East to have that honour.
The country is currently in the grip of Formula-1 fever, and why not? The competition to host one of the 17 races in the Grand Prix series is fierce, and with established centres like Italy, Germany and England being guaranteed races, it is only two or three spots that are really up for grabs.
The initial plan was for Bahrain to host the race in October 2004, but with work on the track running ahead of schedule, the event has been advanced. It will likely be held on April 4, 2004.
Other infrastructure associated with the project, including airport expansion and construction of new flyovers, is expected be completed before March.
Bahrain has been fortunate to have one of Formula-1s biggest fans in HH the Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also honorary president of the Bahrain Motor Federation. It was his support that was instrumental in the country being awarded the prestigious event.
Crowds of up to 70,000 from around the world are expected for race week, including 40,000 for the race day itself. The global TV audience will run into the tens of millions.
Bahrain has always had a committed and enthusiastic motor racing community. Car rallies have been held in the country for more than 50 years, and interest in the motor racing is only going to increase with the addition of F-1 to the countrys sporting calendar.
The new circuit is being built in Sakhir. It will consist of four tracks, a main racing track, a dragster track, an inner and outer circuit.
The architecture has an Arabian theme with an eight-storey VIP viewing tower, a main grandstand to seat 12,000 spectators and another multi-purpose grandstand, which will accommodate a further 5,000.
The race will be run on a looped track of 16 turns and a forecast main lap time of less than 94 seconds. The average race speeds will likely be in excess of 200 kph.
The high speeds are what make the sport so popular, and also so dangerous, as I witnessed first hand when three-time world champion Ayrton Senna of Brazil crashed into the barriers at close to 300kph at that fateful Grand Prix in 1994.
Fortunately there have been no other fatalities since then, with new safety standards being strictly implemented.
Bahrains Formula 1 event is expected to cost the country BD56.2 million ($148.6 million), but will bring massive economic benefits, including to the tourism, technology, hotels, shopping and restaurant sectors.
Bahrain's Gulf Daily News adds: The new general manager of the Bahrain Racing Circuit Hans Geist expects the track to be ready in time.
"I don't think there is a problem with finishing construction on time. It is not a problem to organise the Formula One event, but it is a short time to export a new product to the Middle East."
However, the final details - including ticket prices - are not expected to be finalised until June or July.
Organisers had initially planned to schedule the first event for October 2004.
However, they would not have been able to stage it in October 2005 because it would clash with Ramadan.
By fixing a date in April they can allow maximum time between the first and second race - therefore avoiding Formula One overkill to the paying public.
"For a big event it is very important to have it on the same date year after year," said Mr Geist.
"We have no choice but to stage it at the start of the season in April 2005.
"That means if the first race is in October 2004, the second in April would be down - it would be too close.
"That is the mistake they made in Malaysia. Their second race was a disaster from an economic side," said Mr Geist.
The 44-year-old Austrian has been general manager of the A1 Ring, in Austria, since 1995.
However, Austria has been dropped from the list of Formula-1 host countries for next season and Mr Geist was seen as the natural man for the job.
Mr Geist said racing fans from the Middle East are expected to form the bulk of spectators for the first Formula One race.
It is expected that 80 per cent of visitors will come from neighbouring countries in the region.
Not all of them will necessarily fly into Bahrain International Airport.
"There are three airstrips we could use for landing airplanes," Mr Geist said.
"We could offer package deals for places like Dubai and fly spectators in on the morning of the race."