Matters of moment, March 2015

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Following Derek Warwick’s impassioned plea to Bernie Ecclestone on behalf of Silverstone and the British Grand Prix, as reported here last month, I met the boss of the Bahrain circuit at the Autosport International Show in Birmingham. Here was another perspective on Formula 1 race organisation, one wholly alien and long coveted by the beleaguered chiefs of the British Racing Drivers’ Club.

Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, explained just how “sustainable” hosting a Grand Prix can be. “Having a GP was an initiative taken by our government, so we don’t cover the whole commitment,” he said. “We are operators of the circuit and we put on the race, but the fees are paid by the government. They justify it by the economic impact on the country, which is a lot more than they pay per season.”

So it delivers? “Absolutely.” To the tune of US$260 million, on average, per year. A different world, eh Derek?

On more than one occasion, this magazine has expressed its discomfort at Bahrain’s place in F1 because of its poor record on human rights. Back in 2011, the Gulf island state found itself central to the rise of the Arab Spring, with protests spilling into violence that led to the cancellation of the Grand Prix. F1, of course, ‘doesn’t do’ real-world politics and the sport predictably – and shamefully – turned a blind eye, returning to race the following year. As the figure quoted above indicates, that was for one very obvious reason: it’s a place that’s good for business.

And as much as those of us with a social conscience might squirm, it’s a home truth that the Bahrain GP is one of the most successful races on the calendar. Now heading into its second decade, the first Middle Eastern state to embrace F1 is more committed than ever to the sport, despite the success of Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina and the proposed introduction of Qatar.

Al Khalifa claims rivalry from other states in the Gulf is not an issue. “Abu Dhabi was beneficial for us, in terms of growing the sport and culture,” he told me. “We’re still early to motor racing and we’re not competing yet. In fact we’re in the same boat, building this [racing] culture.”

Nevertheless, for last year’s 10th anniversary Bahrain responded to the increasing competition for a place on the F1 calendar by turning its event into a night race, an invigorating move for a less than inspiring circuit. “Sunday is a working day for us,” Al Khalifa reminded me. “People had finished work, kids were home from school and so there were a lot of win-wins. Culturally, as a people we do everything later in the day too.

“There were more people in the stands by far – this was the most successful race we’ve had, on all levels,” he added, in reference to the Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg battle that would define their rivalry for the season.

But despite the success of the GP, there’s more to the sport in Bahrain than F1. The World Endurance Championship is helping cement the racing culture Al Khalifa and his team crave, while a local racing scene is taking root. “It’s growing,” Al Khalifa said. “Our first bike racing championship began in December, from a group of enthusiasts who simply got their act together.

“It’s coming along, but it takes time. At such a milestone as 10 years you reflect. From the grass roots, for example, drag racing grew unbelievably in this time. Today we have cars running times comparable to those in the US. We do Monday drag nights, which are open to normal cars and average about 100 entries. It’s £10 to just come and run. Karting has been open for two or three years now, and we are starting to see a base of drivers coming through.”

Al Khalifa also sits on the FIA’s single-seater commission and is hatching plans to launch a Formula 4 winter series at the end of this year. And the island is attracting new business too, Bell Helmets recently announcing the migration of its manufacturing base from China to the Bahrain circuit.

“Credibility” is a word that cropped up more than once during my conversation with the chief exec. For many of us, that will always be hard to swallow from a state that has so many unresolved problems. But when there’s a warm welcome and a few dollars more on the table, that’s nothing but an inconvenient truth for the sport of motor racing.

James Tucker is something of a Don Quixote figure in British motor sport. He just refuses to be beaten.

Three years after the apparent demise of the Silverstone 24 Hours, the founder of the Britcar GT series has exhumed the race with support from Dunlop and is busy building a grid. Having secured a date, Tucker claims he is trying to take a step back and allow others to carry the burden – but it’s his own six-figure investment that is making this happen.

The race became an autumn favourite in its previous iteration, but this time will take place on April 24-26, when cars and budgets are still fresh for the new season. Local politics rather than noise complaints caused its demise last time, he says, but that’s all in the past. Tucker is targeting a grid to match his personal best of 56 cars and a weekend crowd of 10,000.

Now, the thought of trying to follow a full-blown 24-hour race at Silverstone, most likely in the wind and rain, might send a shudder down the spine. But for competitors both ‘pro’ and ‘am’ it should be an enticing prospect. Given the strength of the modern Spa and Nürburgring 24 Hours, it’s only right and proper that Britain should have its own round-the-clock classic, even if the venue can never stir the soul in quite the same manner.

At the NEC it was heartening to see James still tilting at windmills.

We wish him luck.

Another welcome return is the latest attempt to revive Formule Libre in the UK. The all-comers concept that drew everything from top-line F1 entries to modest Formula Fords used to be a fan favourite on national racecards, but the trend towards one-make single-seater categories has hardly encouraged such free-range thinking over the past 25 years.

How fitting then that the BARC’s attempt at a revival should be born from one-make series with nowhere to play. The new Formula Libre Championship isn’t quite as libre as its name suggests, but the spirit is right and it’s quite understandable that the club should target its investment towards a specific and sustainable market.

The series is open to pre-2012 F3 and old Formula BMWs that currently have nowhere to run, but also latest-spec 2-litre Formula Renaults. Young racers would compete every weekend if they could, just like they used to in previous, simpler eras. The new series offers a great chance for extra track time at rounds taking in Rockingham, Thruxton, Croft and Oulton Park. We hope the entries flood in.

The show season has been particularly hectic this January, thanks to the clashing dates for Autosport International (see page 105) and the new London Classic Car Show (p78). Judging by the anger expressed by many enthusiasts, we’re relieved to hear the shows will avoid each other in 2016.

It’s Rétromobile in Paris next and, after that, the homespun charm of Race Retro on February 20-22. I was planning to go anyway, but news that the great Ari Vatanen will take to the showground special stage at Stoneleigh Park, in a Ford Escort MkII and Group B Peugeot 205 T16, will make the M40 trundle pass a little quicker (full details on p38). Behind the wheel, Ari was never much of a shrinking violet.

I suspect that’s still the case.