By Roy Kietzman » It has been only four years since the island became a regular stop on the Formula-1 racing calendar, but it's fair to say the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) has transformed life in the kingdom.
Without question, the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix (the fourth race was held in April this year) remains the jewel in the BIC's crown. Bahrain's staging of the race has won international acclaim and the annual event attracts TV audiences of between 300 to 400 million.
Less well known is that hundreds of other events are now staged at the BIC (530 last year alone!) – including motor racing, drag races, trial runs and off-road tests. And it's not just sporting events that are held here. The BIC is also a leading choice as venue to launch products, hold dinner events, parties, conferences, media events, shows, concerts, awards ceremonies, even weddings.
Back in 2003, some people voiced their fears – the three-day F1 event was great, but what about the other 362 days of the year? The BIC management has shown exactly what is possible, proving that the circuit can be a hub, not only for motor racing but also hundreds of social, entertainment and other sporting events like foot races and cycling.
Though it cost $150 million to construct the basic complex, the Grand Prix itself brought $394 million into the Bahrain economy in 2006, and as much as $600 million in revenues expected when the numbers are crunched for 2007. Audi, General Motors and Jaguar love staging their launch events at BIC. With a thousand visitors coming to BIC each month – about a third of them without prior arrangement – a welcome centre needed to be built so that those wanting to see the vast six-track complex in Sakhir at the centre of Bahrain could receive basic information, see F1 cars, watch videos of the races, pick up souvenirs and soak in the motor-sport atmosphere.
The circuit is now on the tour itinerary of several cruise-ship lines that dock in Bahrain with hundreds of tourists gawking on ancient sights but also very 21st-century sites like the circuit. With hundreds of millions of people around the globe aware of Bahrain through the worldwide spotlight cast on the kingdom, Martin Whitaker, BIC chief executive officer, is convinced that the presence of the circuit "has been a catalyst for generating new business" in the country.
He maintains that some of the landmark developments in Bahrain – like the $1.3 billion Bahrain Financial Harbour, the Bahrain World Trade Centre as well as the notable sprawling Amwaj, Al Areen and Durrat al Bahrain residential developments have benefitted from the dominant appeal of F1, the world's single most watched sports event after the Olympics.
To the excitement of F1 fans, two testing sessions have been added to the Bahrain race calendar, increasing the opportunity to get autographs of their favourite drivers.
A master plan has also been recently presented to the BIC board of directors for a vast development in the shadow of the circuit. The five-point project would include an international university specialising in studies in engineering, aeronautics, marine science and alternative fuels. The region's high-net-worth individuals would have a clubhouse where exotic cars could be stored, serviced and maintained.
Pavilions would have showrooms to spotlight new brands and possibly house a museum of motor sport. Also in the proposal is the development of a hotel as well as a shopping complex and business centre with legal and financial services including special attention to incubator-type companies.
Germany's high performance sports carmaker, RUF Automobile, is meanwhile finalising plans to manufacture cars in the vicinity of BIC. The new full-range service, production and marketing base will be the first such facility outside RUF's homebase in Pfaffenhausen, Germany. The company puts out only about 35 individually-customised vehicles a year, which are purchased by car enthusiasts, race drivers and collectors at prices beginning at well over $100,000.
Helping to ensure a strong future for BIC, Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco) has initiated an intensive programme to find and train Bahraini F1 drivers. Out of 300 applicants, the group was whittled down to 10 and finally three candidates who met all the criteria required for the stringent discipline and aptitudes demanded for F1 drivers.
Hamad Al Fardan, who scored his first victory in the new 2007 Toyota Series, is going to Britain for advanced training, and fans are pinning their hopes on him as a not-too-distant future Bahraini F1 driver. Shaikh Salman bin Rashid Al Khalifa, reigning Formula BMW Asia champion, also won a BMW scholarship to further his studies in motoring and is tipped for F1 fame in an upcoming season.
BIC has created its own distinctive style of putting on the F1 show, considerably helped by a strong hospitality infrastructure to entertain teams and fans. Moreover, the circuit, with its ambitious plans for the future, is pegged to become a hub for so much more than motor racing.