Just a few years ago Formula One – and motorsport in general – did not have any presence in the Middle East. Now the region wants to be associated with what Formula One represents – technological excellence, innovation, the future.
Bahrain has not only built a venue that is among the very best in the world and deservedly won acclaim for its Grand Prix, but it has also built foundations for the current growth of interest and investment in Formula One across the Middle East.
The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) staged its first Formula One event in April 2004, winning the FIA promoters’ trophy for that season. Commented the sport’s dealmaker extraordinaire, Formula One Management CEO Bernie Ecclestone at the time:
“It was a real pleasure to bring Formula One to the Kingdom of Bahrain, and I’m pleased to confirm that this relationship will continue into the future.”
Since its inaugural race, the Bahrain event has drawn widespread acclaim for its facilities and its impressive programme of pre-race events. In 2006, it was honoured with hosting the season opener when Melbourne, the traditional first-race venue, was busy with the Commonwealth Games. Said BIC Chairman, Talal Al Zain:
“The success of the Grand Prix has however reached even further than we dared hope when we embarked on this great adventure, and we are delighted to see both interest and involvement in the sport from fans, sponsors and other ventures around the region has blossomed from our achievements. Our new agreement with Mr Ecclestone ensures that Formula One will retain its home in the Middle East long into the next decade, and that the Kingdom will continue to host the world’s biggest sporting series.”
The news that Abu Dhabi would host a Grand Prix in 2009 on a new racing circuit on Yas Island was also greeted with much fanfare. Said Bernie Ecclestone:
“We are delighted to bring Formula One to Abu Dhabi. It was a mutual decision to have a second race in this economically fast-growing region and I have no doubts that Bahrain and Abu Dhabi can co-exist perfectly. There are five countries waiting at the moment to have a race and we have decided to come here – this should speak for itself.”
The Abu Dhabi government said it had invested $40 billion in the Yas Island development, so the cost of an annual Formula One race is relatively low by comparison given that the aim is to build up a huge tourist industry on the island. Abu Dhabi is also able to attract more local spectators to the event as it is the highest per capita city in the world, unlike Bahrain where wealth is much more restricted.
The development is all part of the plan to wean the economy off its dependence on oil. Abu Dhabi started its own airline, Etihad Airways, in 2003 in an effort to emulate its neighbour and rival Dubai as a tourist destination and spent a huge amount of money expanding the Abu Dhabi International Airport.
For Ecclestone such projects are a gift as he looks for ways to expand Formula One’s revenues in the future with a new generation of high-paying races to follow in the footsteps of Bahrain and Shanghai. These will probably replace some of the first generation events outside Europe which have not yet lived up to local expectations.
Bahrain may not originally have been a success in financial terms, with very small crowds, but the publicity generated has been good for the country. Bahrain’s plans to be a holiday destination have long lagged behind Dubai, and Abu Dhabi is now embarked on an aggressive programme to catch up and rival both.