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F1 in Middle East - to stay

2012-04-23 09:34

FORMULA 1 SHOWPIECE: The Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit in Abu Dhabi is probably the world's most sophisticated with a perfect track, immaculately clean grounds and a world-leading hotel complex.

Author: ALAN BALDWIN

 
MANAMA, Bahrain - Formula 1 teams, when they have recovered from a 2012 Bahrain GP run against a backdrop of nightly clashes between police and protesters, have many questions to address in the weeks ahead.

The whole world has seen TV images of demonstrators hurling petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot during protests in and around Bahrain's capital Manama - though that was 30km from the Sakhir track.

The 2011 race was cancelled because of a bloody crack-down on an anti-government uprising, that of 2012 faced down many calls for it to have the same fate.

'STRONG TIES TO GLAMOUR SPORT'

Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn said: "We were committed to this race. Now we will make a proper judgement of what happened and come to a conclusion."

There may be an inquest of sorts but even if teams were reluctant to come to Bahrain before Sunday's race there is most unlikely to be any weakening of the glamour sport's ties with the region's rulers. The race contributes some $40-million a year to F1's coffers.

If anything, the ties will become tighter with F1 rights holder Bernie Ecclestone saying he's committed to Bahrain "for as long as they want us" and asserting that "all publicity is good publicity".

The cash-guzzling sport has always followed the money and 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.

Lotus team owner Gerard Lopez said: "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."

LARGEST INVESTOR

Lopez's Genii Business Exchange has enlisted retired triple champion Jackie Stewart, who has excellent contacts with the Bahrain royal family, as a partner to build new links with automotive companies and manufacturers. Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to host a GP (2004) and owns half of the McLaren Group whose F1 team is leading the F1 championship after four rounds.

Abu Dhabi joined the calendar in 2009 at a Yas Marina circuit that is lavish even by F1 standards and 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, through the emirate's sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments, and the region is a significant market for the German automaker. It was Aabar that in 2009 bought the then World champions Brawn GP with Daimler, turning it into the official works Mercedes team with the Abu Dhabi fund holding 40%.

Abu Dhabi accounts for more than half of the United Arab Emirates' economy and is also home to Ferrari World, the world's largest indoor theme park, next to the impressive Yas Marina circuit.

INTO KARTING, TOO

Toro Rosso, Red Bull's sister team, has three sponsors owned by Abu Dhabi's government fund International Petroleum Investment Company, Spanish oil company CEPSA, Swiss-based Falcon Private Bank and Canada's Nova Chemicals.

Williams, whose cars in the 1970's and 80's were sponsored by Saudi Airlines and the Bin Laden family's Albilad, have an agreement with the Qatar science and technology park for research and development.

Bahrain's Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa al-Khalifa sits on the International Automobile Association's decision-making 26-man World Motor Sport Council as head of the karting commission; the counry has a state-of-the-art outdoor kart track designed to be able to host World championships and develop home-grown talent.

Williams' Brazilian driver Bruno Senna explained: "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.

"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."

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