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30 May 2023

Sponsors line up for F1 buzz

By Gary Meenaghan



At the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) in Sakhir, it is not only the cars that are hitting top speeds; the profit figures are increasing expeditiously as well. Martin Whitaker, CEO of the Middle East’s only Grand Prix circuit, has revealed just how lucrative an investment hosting a Formula One event in the region can be – news that will please the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.


The Bahrain Grand Prix is the highlight of the Middle East’s motorsports calendar, but with the UAE capital set to join the F1 schedule next year, talk has led to rumours of a possible over-saturation of the market and an increase in competition for ‘track tourists’. Something Martin Whitaker is keen to disprove.


“Lets get this on the table straight away,” he said recently while in Dubai as part of the Bahrain GP Roadshow, a promotional tour to raise awareness for the April 4-6 event, “Genuinely, and believe me when I say it, we are very, very happy about Abu Dhabi coming onboard.


“It will be a great race. It will endorse and strengthen the fan base and hopefully we’ll see, in either 2009 or 2010, that Bahrain will have to build another grandstand.”

The Bahrain Grand Prix has grown exponentially year-on-year since Michael Schumacher won the inaugural race on April 4, 2004. In 2006, the event raised $367m – 17 per cent more than the previous year.


Last year, having attracted 90,000 visitors across three days, the economic impact was, said Whitaker, “significantly higher than that of previous [years]”.

“We all understand Grand Prix racing is an expensive pastime,” he added.


“It’s a pastime that is entertained by governments nowadays. In the old days it was entertained by private individuals; some of them hired circuits. “Now you will see all the circuits Bernie Ecclestone and his team are dealing with are government-funded and there’s a specific reason for that: because it costs a lot of money.


“But even though it cost us $150m to build the circuit in Bahrain back in 2003 and 2004, the economic impact in 2008 is measured, literally, in hundreds of millions of US dollars.

But it’s not just about economic impact; last year more than 500 million people around the world watched the race on television.


“You imagine an advertising campaign that would generate 500 million contacts, you just can’t imagine what it would cost you; it would be enormously expensive.

So consider a television audience of that enormity, not just this year, but over the past four years – and I’m sure it will be more this year: it is a very clear indication as to why the government invests in the Grand Prix and why it is a huge success for Bahrain and for other countries,” said Whitaker.


“The Grand Prix has, without a shadow of a doubt, given Bahrain a global market.

Other than the Olympic Games and football’s World Cup, there is no event bigger – and it comes every year, not just once every four years.”

Abu Dhabi is well aware of the spotlight that will be cast annually on the UAE capital from 2009.


The government will be hoping for relatively similar returns to Bahrain when the gunshot sounds at the custom-built racetrack on Yas Island, a $40 billion multi-purpose development off the east coast of the capital.


With the Hermann Tilke-designed part-circuit, part-street race, the UAE capital promises to showcase one of the longest and most demanding tracks in the world. And already the sponsors are lining up to have their products associated with motorsports’ biggest draw – Etihad Airways lead the pack after securing a three-year deal as title sponsors.


But while the Grand Prix lasts only one weekend, the businessmen behind Yas Island are planning for the long-term.The Ferrari World theme park and the Ferrari driving school, the first of its kind outside the car manufacturer’s home in Maranello, northern Italy, will complement the racetrack.


As well as that, Yas Island will house residential and corporate real estate, luxury hotels, restaurants, theatres and sporting facilities.And Ferrari is not the only Formula One team with a vested interest in the Middle East and Asia: Bahrain’s $6bn Mumtalakat Holding Company owns 30 per cent of Ron Dennis’s McLaren team, while Indian business magnate Vijay Mallya and Dutchman Michiel Mol paid €88 million for the Spyker team.


The team was later renamed Force India.Whitaker, however, remains adamant regional companies are unlikely to push for complete takeovers.“I think you may see more countries in this region investing,” he said. “But I don’t think you will see 100 per cent ownership.


“What is more important is where the drivers are coming from. Already we are beginning to see regional drivers doing extremely well in international motor championships,” said Whitaker. “Wouldn’t it be great to see someone from the UAE or from Bahrain racing in Formula One? That’s when you would really have to start building grandstands.


That’s what we are all aiming for. You can see it in the United Kingdom, whether it was Nigel Mansell or whether it’s Lewis Hamilton now. If Finland had a Grand Prix circuit, it would be sold out. It would be a small circuit, because there aren’t that many people, but it would be sold out.“I think that’s what makes the difference. If we can get a regional driver into a Formula One car, that’s when we will really see investments, sponsorships, business… and ticket sales will go through the roof.”



The numbers

500m people watched last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix on television


90,000 people visited the Bahrain International Circuit over the course of the three days