When the first Formula One Grand Prix was awarded to the Middle East, there were plenty of raised eyebrows about the decision to bring a race to the region. But as Michael Schumacher took the chequered flag at the 2004 Bahrain Grand Prix, those involved appeared to be vindicated.
It has not been plain sailing since, with the 2011 race cancelled thanks to political unrest in the country and media criticism recurring since around issues beyond sport. But there is no denying that Bahrain has been a motorsport pioneer – notably paving the way for Abu Dhabi to follow in its footsteps by also hosting a Grand Prix.
Since 2010, Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa has been at the helm as CEO of Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), the Grand Prix’s venue in Sakhir, 40 minutes south of capital city Manama. He admits it has been a rollercoaster 15 years as he fondly remembers that very first race back in 2004.
“I can still see those five lights going out and the race beginning,” Sheikh Salman tells Sport Industry Insider. “It was a moment we feared might not come and I just remember feeling so happy. Building the track was a huge, huge challenge. It took us 486 days from start to finish.
“For us it wasn’t about coming newly into motorsport. Yes it was the first Formula One race but the Bahrain Motor Federation has been around since 1952; we had many rallies on the island and other events. However yes, for us to build a purpose-built racetrack was important. We didn’t know how the circuit would evolve or indeed how the region and motorsport world would take to it but the usage of track has obviously grown tremendously.”
Bahrain has since shared its experience and resources – including marshals and logistical staff – with other FIA races such as the F1 Grands Prix in Abu Dhabi, India and Azerbaijan. It appears that a genuine motorsport culture has been fostered and as Sheikh Salman speaks, the hum of the Porsche GT3 Cup Middle East punctuates his discussion about the track’s usage outside of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
“I think we do a good job of using the infrastructure we put in place for the F1 and that is not just racing. We are busy almost every day of the year outside of the summer and that has probably been one of our biggest successes. We’ve had car launches here, including the global unveiling of the Lamborghini Huracan EVO; we have Bahrain Comic Con and more exhibition style events. And a big step has been bringing in esports.
“That’s really been a major paradigm shift. I have to admit I was a critic at the start. As someone who raced myself I found it hard to understand why people would want to watch other people play racing games. But you see them in action and the skill level is seriously impressive. And you can’t ignore the numbers – millions of people watch esports, it’s a massive potential audience.
“It is also a fantastic entry point to the sport for some people. This is how you can get kids into racing in a different way – a way that has fewer financial barriers. Does it replace track time and racing? No, but I don’t think that’s the objective. The idea is to get them interested in the skills and how to build those skills. If they’re really interested then they’ll do go-karting and racing as the next step.”
As esports is currently utilised to attract a new generation of racing fans, Sheikh Salman believes the introduction of the Bahrain Grand Prix was crucial for developing the current level of support for motorsport in both the Kingdom and the wider Middle East. For Bahrain, this was just one goal of hosting a Grand Prix.
“Obviously we wanted to put Bahrain on the map and we’ve seen that big sporting events can help this happen. It brings you to the same level as global players and other countries who also host races. Bahrain is said in the same breath as Germany or the UK. The economic impact is important too and it helped stimulate other infrastructure like a strong hotel network. This was a catalyst for more tourism.
“But yes I think the biggest impact if you focus on F1 has been building a fan base. Particularly at the start in 2004 and 2005, we were attracting people to a new sport they didn’t know about. Before our first Grand Prix, I think Formula One had only been on TV in the region for five years.
“Enlightening people has been a great journey and it’s amazing for example when you see Bahrainis supporting a smaller team like Force India. Obviously you expect Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull to attract fans but this perhaps shows more the impact we have made – creating a diverse fan base.”
— Bahrain Int. Circuit (@BAH_Int_Circuit) January 17, 2019
The Gulf currently hosts two F1 Grands Prix in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi but Qatar also hosts world class motorsport in the form of Moto GP, while Saudi Arabia welcomed Formula E to the streets of Riyadh in December and Kuwait has just opened a new FIA grade 1 circuit. Alternative venues are often painted as rivals in the media but the truth is very different according to Sheikh Salman.
“We absolutely do not view other circuits as rivals. People often say this about Abu Dhabi as we both have the F1 but the races are so different. Our event is totally family-oriented while Abu Dhabi has a different atmosphere, with its concerts and parties at the marina. In reality, we worked closely with our friends in Abu Dhabi when they decided to also host a Grand Prix and we continue to meet several times a year.
“People try to make it seem as though we are competing against each other but actually the relationships are very strong. Could we collaborate more? Of course. We all need to work on this but we are definitely trying. For the Formula E in Saudi Arabia we offered our marshals and teams, and we have been helping Kuwait with their new circuit too. We are trying to pull together as a region to promote motorsport.
“Everything is about the three Ps for us: pride, passion and performance. That’s how we operate with the Bahrain Grand Prix and it is how we want to encourage the rest of the region to operate too.”
One area that has brought some conflict recently is Formula One TV rights after beIN Sport announced that they would not renew their contract with F1. However, Sheikh Salman insists this was not a major surprise and that an alternative resolution will ensure motorsport’s momentum is not lost.
“Of course we had our concerns but that was a year ago when it became clear that the contracts were ending and would not be renewed,” he explains. “But we know how important the region is to F1 and motorsport and though I can’t say too much, we are confident fans will be serviced. I am not worried.”
The pullout of Qatar-funded beIN Sport from F1 was another example of sport and politics mixing in the region and Bahrain has also found that distinction difficult to manage at times over the past 15 years. But when it comes to the Bahrain Grand Prix, Sheikh Salman insists his focus has always been firmly on the motorsport.
“For us there is a clear separation of sport and politics and it is crucial for us working at the BIC to maintain this. Has it been difficult when we have faced criticism? Of course, but we have to just try to get on with our jobs. Journalists are trying to sell newspapers, that’s their aim. Our aim is to host a Grand Prix and build motorsport. We’re here to create memories and have a responsibility to the 200 million viewers that like the sport. That is what we concentrate on.”