In Defence of: The Bahrain F1
It might surprise you to learn that Bahrain was arguably the most exciting Grand Prix of 2014. Yes, Bahrain, not cosmopolitan Melbourne, historic Monte Carlo, or street circuit supreme, Singapore. The combination of the event being held at night, F1’s new engines mixing up grids like never before, and the beginnings of Mercedes’ intra-team world title fight made for a thrilling encounter. “This kind of race is exactly why I am in Formula One,” said Rosberg afterwards, even though he lost out to Hamilton. And this was just one of many battles throughout the field: a sure sign of a classic event.
Until that night, the circuit’s featureless landscape, lack of places to overtake, and Bahrain’s less-than-perfect international reputation had all hindered the course as an attraction. But 2014 revitalised Bahrain’s place on the calendar. It’s certainly been a journey, according to Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit. “We were delighted that the tenth anniversary was of such a high standard,” he says. “Having the night race, and the celebratory atmosphere from the full grandstands all contributed to the success. You can see from the amazing TV pictures, and the atmosphere in the crowd, that it made it more of a spectacle, having that extra sense of theatre.”
The race also made an impact on the F1 paddock. Derek Warwick is the president of the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC), an ex-F1 driver of more than 140 Grands Prix, and was an FIA driver steward in Bahrain. “The circuit has two hairpins, three or four very fast corners and it also effectively has four straights,” he says. “It’s a dynamic circuit that has become a drivers’ favourite, because they can race properly.”
And the drivers agree. Felipe Massa, who won Bahrain back-to-back with Italian powerhouse Ferrari in 2007-08, looks forward to the event every year. “It was nice to race in the evening. The fans were more excited and the circuit looked spectacular under the lights.” Force India’s Sergio Pérez, who fought all the way to podium last year, was also a big fan of the switch to night racing. “As a driver you don’t really notice a big difference because the floodlights are so powerful — it’s almost the same as racing in the day. But on TV it looks very cool.”
The shift away from daylight hours was the most ambitious project since the circuit was completed, and one that required huge capital outlay. The project took six months to complete at a rumoured cost of $18 million. To provide the required lighting levels for HDTV broadcasting, 495 lighting poles carrying 4,500 luminaires were installed around the circuit.
But it’s an investment that should pay dividends. According to industry monitor Formula Money, the Grand Prix’s annual contribution to F1’s GDP is over $270 million, with the annual local economic impact at $295 million. In addition, overall year-round tourist numbers in Bahrain have also increased by 60 percent since the first race in 2004. The challenge now is in ensuring the event remains fresh and relevant, and that it builds on the numbers achieved so far. “We see ourselves as the home of motorsport in the Middle East,” says Sheikh Salman. “You can’t be that unless you continually challenge yourself to improve, and that is something that sits at the heart of our ethos.”
However, Bahrain’s aspirations to be the centre of motorsport in the Middle East have been seriously challenged by regional neighbour Abu Dhabi. The Yas Marina Circuit, just one part of the UAE capital’s $40-billion development of Yas Island, is an example of what you can do with an unlimited budget — and it looks the part. For example, YMC has five configurations, two of which can be used completely independently. It also has five covered grandstands with a 45,000-seat capacity; and can operate 24/7 via the highest-grade lighting of any facility in the world.
Bahraini officials, though, are keen to point out that building a motorsport culture in the Middle East is a joint effort. “First of all, we have always worked very closely with Abu Dhabi, and, of course, we are delighted with the success they are having,” Sheikh Salman says. “We certainly don’t see it as competition. The races are so far apart in the season, so no one is treading on anyone’s toes at all. In addition, their audience is different. They are much more internationally focused. The GCC is our core audience.”
Retaining and growing that audience is a challenge Derek Warwick knows well, as president of the BRDC, which owns Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix. “Bahrain has really looked to the future,” Warwick says. “They’ve tried to make it a racing circuit, and not just for F1 but for other events as well. They’re promoting their drive centre, karting, and drag strip. People just think it’s a piece of black tarmac in the desert, when, in fact, the people who run it are doing it very professionally. They’ve tried to keep it fresh, year-in year-out.”
With F1 facing its second year of the new engine formula, this month’s Bahrain Grand Prix should certainly stay fresh. The power units are now road-car relevant, utilising a 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engine with multiple energy recovery systems. These systems include kinetic energy that is harvested under braking, and waste heat generated from the turbocharger, for a total output of 760bhp. The technology is revolutionary, but so is the sound. The old 2.4-litre V8s used to shriek loudly, all the way up to 18,000rpm and around 145 decibels. The new engines produce a deep, harmonic rumble that is still spine-tingling when running flat-out.
“We don’t see the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as competition. The races are so far apart in the season, so no one is treading on anyone’s toes at all. They are much more internationally focused, whereas the GCC is our core audience”
F1 2015 will again be a battle of the engine manufacturers, but this time with greater competition. Hamilton and Rosberg might have secured a one-two for Mercedes in Melbourne last month, but Renault, Ferrari, Red Bull and Honda are all hell-bent on getting even this season. “The ability of those teams to develop their engines during the course of the season will hopefully mean that we’ll have more of a level playing field, because for sure a Mercedes-Benz engine was an advantage in 2014,” says Warwick.
So while Mercedes’ Hamilton and Rosberg are likely to continue their battle at the front, there are a few big names ready to show them up. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo will start his second season with the top team, and is hungry to add to last year’s three wins.
Two other drivers to watch are four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, now with Ferrari, and Fernando Alonso, who has returned to McLaren. Vettel, a Red Bull protégé, was never going to be with the Austrian energy drinks company for life, despite winning four-straight world championships with the team. Ferrari was always the dream, with the German growing up idolising his fellow countryman, Michael Schumacher, a seven-time F1 world champion who secured five of his seven world titles with Scuderia from 2000-2004. However, Vettel has parachuted into a Ferrari that has lost its way and is now desperately trying to rebuild. With some heads rolling during the off-season, it’s going to be a long way back to the top step of the podium. Vettel and teammate Kimi Räikkönen have plenty to do, despite the German’s podium finish in Australia.
The biggest story over the break, though, has been Alonso’s return to McLaren, which he last drove for in 2007. It’s quite a move, given the animosity that came with the split last time, so a lot of water must have gone under the bridge. And while Alonso will now make his season debut in Malaysia, in order to recover from a concussion sustained in pre-season testing, the Spaniard, along with fellow world champion Jenson Button, make a super-strong line-up. Australia, though, was an inauspicious start, with Button finishing 11th and leaving him at the bottom of the 2015 Driver Standings.
Meanwhile, Massa and teammate Valtteri Bottas head up a rejuvenated Williams; Lotus F1 Team’s Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean are back in the mix with Mercedes power; and keep an eye out for Toro Rosso’s super rookie pairing of Max Verstappen (the youngest ever driver to take the F1 grid at just 17-years-old), and Carlos Sainz Jr.
So while Bahrain might not compete in the style or entertainment stakes with other hosts, its position in the season combined with a decade’s experience of hosting Formula One, makes it a race that is more than worthy of a place in the calendar.
Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, bahraingp.com. Tickets start at BD30 ($80).