Bumper Grand Prix celebrations for 60th anniversary

Castellotti’s 1956 Ferrari will be on show

As the Middle East prepares to host the first race of the new Grand Prix season LIZ O’REILLY spoke to MARTIN WHITAKER, former CEO of Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), who has remained as Formula One adviser at the track prior to taking up a new position

How has the event grown in the years since it has been staged in Bahrain?

It seems remarkable that this year will be the seventh time the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix has been staged in the Kingdom. The awareness and profile that the race has created for the Kingdom on a global scale is of massive significance to both business and tourism. We have seen a giant leap in the number of spectators and corporate guests over the years but the major advantage has been in the economic impact, both direct and indirect, to the Kingdom.

The figure in 2008 was almost $600 million and underlines the decision to construct the circuit and stage the race here. In one year alone the cost of construction has been repaid many times over.

This in turn has a knock-on effect to business and tourism and it is encouraging to see that companies such as Mumtalakat and the Economic Development Board now use the race as a platform for the development of business networking between local, regional and global businesses. Global awareness from the television audience has also taken a giant leap and audience figures in excess of 500 million can be expected from the first race in 2010.

What has been the reaction from the island’s tourism industry?

The Grand Prix and the circuit during the remainder of the year, with its other regional and international events as well as its corporate activities, has contributed greatly to the overall tourism interest in the kingdom.

The official tourism channels do not use the circuit in anything like the way that it should be used as a catalyst to attract interest and investment from the tourism industry. More is being done but we are a long way from benefiting from the circuit’s growing international impact in such a way as Abu Dhabi, for example, benefited from its inaugural Grand Prix in 2009.

What is needed is a pride and passion in the race and the advantages that it brings to the tourism industry from the tourism authorities.

Whitaker…pride and passion needed

How do you see the event developing in the future?

BIC has a long-term contract to stage a round of the FIA Formula One World Championship until 2016 and this gives us continuity and stability. Clearly there is a fascination for Formula One and other international motorsport here in the region and this is growing year-on-year. We see this demonstrably with F1 and other international events such as the Australian V8 Supercars and now regional races such as our own Chevrolet V8s and Porsches are generating support and bigger crowds.

Drag racing too is really moving fast in terms of competitor and spectator sport. But it is in entertainment that we really excel. Entertaining the racing fan and the family is crucial to growing the size of our crowd and of our events in the future and this is one of the key areas for growth as we enter the next decade.

Everyone has more leisure time and, as a direct result, there is a hunger for family and business entertainment. BIC knows better than any other organisation in the region what is required to satisfy this desire and create bigger and better events.

Do you think Bahrain and Abu Dhabi will complement each other as they grow?

Now that we know what Abu Dhabi and Yas Marina Circuit have to offer it is clear that we can benefit from their involvement in Formula One and other sporting activities. In the future I can see joint promotions and possibly even joint ticket sales being of benefit to both organisations.

In the short term we are already witnessing a healthy working relationship with the development of double-header events such as the Australian V8 Supercars Championship rounds in February of this year. Here there is a tangible benefit to organising the two races both in terms of logistics and tourism. Many more Australian fans will see the benefit of travelling to the region for races on consecutive weekends than for just a one-off race. In turn the cost efficiencies are greater to both circuits.

Clearly we are in direct competition on a number of corporate opportunities but this is healthy competition and we have to raise the bar in our own activities to ensure that we are competitive and can attract the business community to Bahrain and the BIC. The advantages to the Kingdom, its tourism and economy are clear for all to see.

Anything special planned for this year that you can tell us about, has the success of the Abu Dhabi event encouraged Bahrain to up its game?

2010 is the 60th Anniversary of the Formula One World Championship and BIC has a huge celebration planned to coincide with the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix over the race weekend. There are 20 surviving world champions from the last 60 years of the sport and all have been invited to attend the race. Some are still racing – Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and of course Michael Schumacher – but others such as the legendary Mario Andretti and stars from a former era such as Sir Jack Brabham, Sir Jackie Stewart, John Surtees (the only world champion on both two and four wheels) together with more recent names such as Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen will all be joining the celebrations on race weekend.

In addition these great names from the past will be reunited with some of the legendary racing cars that carried them to their world titles. Famous cars from Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, Tyrrell, Lotus and Matra will grace the BIC for the first time in a cavalcade that is mouth watering in prospect. For the officiandos and lovers of F1 over the years this will be enough but on top of this there will be a full programme of family and business entertainment which will satisfy the desires of all age groups.