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Formula One here to stay in the Middle East

Formula One here to stay in the Middle East

Once they’ve recovered from a Bahrain Grand Prix run against a backdrop of nightly clashes between police and protesters, Formula One teams have many questions to address in the weeks ahead. But one thing’s for certain, they’ll be back.

April 23, 2012 2:08 by

The whole world has seen television images of demonstrators hurling petrol bombs, while riot police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot in protests in and around Bahrain’s capital Manama. Last year’s Formula One race had to be cancelled as the result of a bloody crackdown on an anti-government uprising, and Sunday’s faced many calls for it to face the same fate. “We were committed to this race and after the race we will make a proper judgement of what happened and come to a conclusion,” said Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn.

There may be an inquest of sorts, but even if teams were reluctant to come to Bahrain before Sunday’s race, it’s not likely there will be any weakening of the glamour sport’s ties with the region’s rulers. The race contributes some $40 million a year to Formula One’s coffers – if anything, the ties will only bind tighter with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone saying he was committed to Bahrain “for as long as they want us” and asserting that all publicity was good publicity.

The cash-guzzling sport has always followed the money and it has found investors and partners in oil and gas-rich countries eager to diversify into tourism and technology as well as indulge a passion for fast cars. “In terms of cash flow, it’s by far the biggest concentrating spot in the world. If you were to map it out that way, you wouldn’t have enough races here,” said Lotus team owner Gerard Lopez.

Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to host a grand prix back in 2004, and owns 50 percent of the McLaren Group – whose team is leading the Formula One championship after four rounds. Abu Dhabi joined the calendar in 2009 at the Yas Marina circuit – lavish even by Formula One standards. That round has become -like Monaco and Singapore- a key fixture for business-to-business deals, and one that corporate chiefs and sponsors will always have space for in their executive diaries.
Abu Dhabi is also the largest investor in Mercedes’ parent Daimler AG through the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments, and the region is a significant market for the German carmaker.

Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s sister team, has three sponsors owned by Abu Dhabi’s government fund International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) – Spanish oil company CEPSA, Swiss-based Falcon Private Bank and Canada’s Nova Chemicals. In Bahrain, Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa al-Khalifa sits on the FIA’s decision-making 26-man world motor sport council as head of the karting commission. The Bahrain circuit also has a state-of-the-art outdoor kart track designed to be able to host world championships and develop homegrown talent.

“We see more interest in Middle Eastern countries to host big sporting events, we have Abu Dhabi and Bahrain on the calendar and I’m sure in the future there will probably be more,” says Williams’ Brazilian driver Bruno Senna. “This is exciting because it creates the motor racing culture. These changes take a while and I think we are just getting a bigger fan base in the Middle East which is good for motor racing generally.”

By Alan Baldwin

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