‘400m people’s eyes will be on Bahrain’

TTN catches up with the Bahrain International Circuit’s Martin Whitaker to find out how the F1 has impacted tourism in Bahrain
The boys in red gear up for some F1 action

The 2006 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix – the only Formula One race in the Middle East – will be even more entertaining than ever, as stunt planes take to the skies and international celebrities take part in a challenge race as part of a festival to celebrate the event, says Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) General Manager Martin Whitaker.

The event will kick off on March 10, culminating in the first F1 race of the 2006 season on March 12, which will be watched by over 400 million people around the world.
The plans, in line with the BIC’s long-term campaign to position the circuit as the region’s premier destination for corporate entertainment, include a raft of spectator-friendly activities designed to appeal to a wide range of audiences. “The Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix is now firmly established on the FIA Formula One World Championship calendar and has created a massive profile and awareness for the Kingdom across the world,” says Whitaker. “The first race always generates immense interest and as a result the circuit and the Kingdom are going to celebrate in style.”
For instance, he says, spectators will be offered Porsche ‘taxi’ race-car passenger rides. “We will also host a Drag Festival and F1 driver autograph sessions. Our plans include a wide range of kids entertainment programmes as well as fire-eaters, stilt walkers, face painters, and henna artists. We will also have a celebrity race, a Red Bull stunt plane presentation, Jump Bahrain, and a string of support races.”
The Grand Prix festival, says Whitaker, makes commercial sense, as it encourages visitors to attend the event over the three days, rather than the race day itself.  “Three-day ticket holders can have access to the pit and paddock and can can meet their favourite driver up close.”
Tickets for the event – priced between BD30 and BD150 ($66 and  $397) – are selling fast, and in the build-up to the race, the BIC has tied up with the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) and various other government authorities.
The Directorate of Culture and National Heritage in coordination with the EDB is hosting a month of cultural events in Bahrain with renowned regional and international performers in the field of music, theatre and dance at archaeological sites such as the Arad Fort. Formula One legend Michael Schumacher will reportedly support a Formula One/FIA Foundation Safety Campaign in conjunction with the Bahrain Ministry of Interior, the Bahrain Motor Federation (BMF) and the BIC.
“The excitement is palpable,” says Whitaker, letting on that it wasn’t difficult getting the first race of the season. “We had the backing of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Australia has the Commonwealth Games this year so they couldn’t hold the first race, and Bernie wanted to run the first race in Malaysia but we got in touch with him and that makes the difference. He knows our organisational capabilities so he turned around and said, ‘I’m going to go to Bahrain. I know whatever I want done in Bahrain will be done’.”
BIC’s Director of PR and Governmental Affairs, Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, agrees. “When the FIA World Council announced late last year that Bahrain would officially kick off the 2006 FIA Formula One World Championship season, we knew right away it would be a particularly exiting time for us at the BIC. It’s first time that Bahrain kicks off an international series of such global significance,” he says.
Three years ago, nobody thought it would be this big. “The first race was fantastic although initially there were a lot of issues,” Whitaker recalls. “There was speculation over whether
the circuit will be ready in time or not, there were rumours sand was getting all over the circuit and the island had to be sprayed with glue to keep the sand down. These were all untrue, as you know. But once people’s fears were allayed it was great. The first race was a celebration of the sport.”
Today, BIC has developed rapidly and is now a centre for corporate, cultural and social activities as well as home to a robust portfolio of international and regional racing events. The circuit is the location of the region’s only BMW Performance Centre as well as the world’s leading off-road 4x4 course; Adventure Drive Arabia. Along with the Bahrain Motor Federation and the associated clubs the circuit is now developing regional racing with the Bapco Caterham Challenge, Formula BMW and Thunder Arabia racing cars, while its international events include the FIA GT, the International Drag Racing Festival, and the GP2 Series along with the Formula BMW Junior World Final and the Vee Eight Supercar Championship Series.