Why does Formula 1 insist on going to far-flung places where there’s absolutely no interest in the sport? It’s a question almost every motor sport fan will have been asked at some stage.
The point was raised at a recent lunch with Sir Jackie Stewart in aid of the 2014 Motor Sport Hall of Fame. “The thing is,” he told us, “China wanted a Grand Prix to grab the world’s attention, to have a global audience. The soccer World Cup only comes round every four years, as do the Olympics, and they don’t come back quickly.” Whether we like it or not Formula 1 is a launch pad for sponsors and even for countries. Millions of viewers on TV more than make up for empty grandstands.
That’s all very well, and you can understand why many of the races on the calendar are funded by governments – the amount of publicity their countries get with 10 years of Formula 1 is far greater than having the Olympics just the once – but what happens to these circuits during the rest of the year? And will there ever be full grandstands?
The problems facing Bahrain
“It’s a challenge,” admits Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, the chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, referring to the empty grandstands. He’s over in the UK, having just come from Milan and the CIK-FIA karting prize giving, to tell people of the work that the Bahrain circuit is putting in to create a motor sport industry around the venue.
“The UK and Europe have an unbelievable history in the sport dating back decades. The problem is, we can’t sit back and say ‘that worked there so it’ll work here’. If I look at Silverstone and look at four points which made it successful and move those to Bahrain, it won’t work.”
Increasing the popularity of motor racing in countries with no history of the sport is a tough prospect. As many of you who have been to the Bahrain Grand Prix will know, the stands are not exactly overflowing.
“There aren’t many people in the grandstands,” Al Khalifa admits. “But there are in the complex – we have a 32,000 capacity and we get between 28 and 29,000 on race day. OK, that’s not a huge number, but these are purely race fans and don’t include the likes of the Paddock Club. Interestingly, as a percentage of the total population, more people in Bahrain attend the Grand Prix than anywhere else in the world.
“The issue with the empty grandstands is a problem, though. This year’s approach is a big investment into solving that. The 2014 race is a night race and that opens up the opportunity for schools to come. Also the Saudi weekend has changed from Thursday/Friday to Friday/Saturday, which will make a difference.” It’s easy to forget that Sunday in Bahrain is the equivalent to our Monday – a day when very few people would be able to travel to Silverstone to watch the British Grand Prix.
The grandstand problem, though, may well be because of cost. Certainly an F1-mad waiter at a restaurant in Bahrain last year said that, while he was desperate to see the race, he couldn’t afford it. “Formula 1 is expensive and you also have to think about the brand. If we open up the doors for free and let everyone walk in what does that say? Also – what about the 28,000 people who are willing to pay? Getting two tests for this year, though, is great and will be nowhere near the same price as the race.”
Of course, things haven’t been easy for the Bahrain Grand Prix over the last couple of years with civil unrest and the race being used as a perfect opportunity to grab the globe’s attention. Al Khalifa isn’t drawn on it and reminds me that it was the government who made the deal to host F1. “I concentrate on the circuit and the racing. I have no influence on what goes on outside the circuit and I need to make sure that the track is ready and safe.”
What can be done?
All these problems aside, though, it’s clear that Bahrain is trying to grow the interest in motor sport and, while it hosts an F1 race, it is not all about that. “We approached it in the wrong way as our first race was an F1 race,” says Al Khalifa. “Something we’ve since tried to do is to strengthen the base, the foundations with things like karting and the lower formulas.
“We’re labelled as an F1 track, but we have a drag strip right down the middle! Monday nights at the drag strip are open to all and it only costs five dinars (£8) for the whole night. We get between 150-200 people every Monday, but we don’t prepare the track in order to keep the professionals away.”
As well as the drag strip Bahrain hosts the World Endurance Championship, and the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East as well as karting events. From now until April the circuit has only two spare days when there isn’t track action. There are seemingly no issues with noise pollution in Bahrain.
One of the issues that Bahrain does face is the number of championships that are available to it. “We’re looking into starting a single seater championship, but what would we run? Who are we going to attract and where are they going to go afterwards? We try and bring races from the region, but the problem is the size of grid you’d get. The Porsche Cup Challenge has 20 cars, which is good, but you don’t want only 10 cars on the grid.
“It must make sense for people to come and for us to host it. For example – we can run all the way through the winter from September/October to March. That’s when you can’t do much in Europe. Well, you can, but it’s freezing!”
It all takes time and Bahrain is clearly serious about building a motor sport community. Our time is nearly up and Al Khalifa is off for another meeting. Just before we part, though, he turns to me and says, “When you next walk into the circuit, when you come through the tunnel, right in front of you is a palm tree that’s quite short and looks really out of place.
“Well, that was planted by drivers from the 2004 Formula 3 race. Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Nelson Piquet were three of them. Anyway, Hamilton won the race and within three years he was in F1. I always look at it when I arrive because that’s a bit of history that we made. Also, I had no idea how long palm trees take to grow. It’s a little like motor sport, no?”
More from Ed Foster
Motor Sport Hall of Fame media lunch
Chevron’s answer to Ferrari’s 458
Double points to be awarded at final GP