Racing Forward

November 2, 2016
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BY AMMARA ISA

Slowly lifting himself out of his striking silver Mercedes race car, Lewis Hamilton emerged the victor of the 2015 Bahrain Grand Prix. In true Hamilton style, his celebratory gesture imitated a baseball home run, immediately sending ripples of laughter through the crowd. Humour aside, Hamilton had achieved an extraordinary win. He had successfully defended his 2014 title, dominating the race from start to finish. With sparks flying at every turn, the race will definitely go down in history as another thrilling year of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Marking another outstanding year in 2015, Bahrain’s relationship with Formula 1 racing has a long and rich history. Ten-time host of the Grand Prix, the Kingdom has experienced all that high-octane racing could possibly offer.

It all began in December 2002. The first piece of ground was broken for what was to be an award-winning, history-making racetrack – the Bahrain International Circuit. A 5.412km long circuit where racers drive around the track at supersonic speeds of up to 386 km/ph. The track was specifically designed with the Grand Prix in mind, as this was to be the first step of Bahrain’s entry into the international scene of motor sports racing.

Although the smallest country in the Gulf, Bahrain had beat out fierce competition from Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates to host the race.  The project was spearheaded by His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander, under whose guidance the building of the highly acclaimed track flourished.

Originally, the circuit was scheduled for a two-year build but a last minute request by Ernie Ecclestone, a Formula 1 supremo, pushed up the schedule by six months. Construction was fast-tracked and over the course of one and half years, a state-of-the-art racetrack was built.

It required 12,000 tons of stone, most of it imported from the UK, which was deposited in the heart of the desert in Sakhir. 30km away from the nation’s capital, the 15-point circuit was constructed to international standards with German architect Hermann Tilke at the helm. Tilke designed the track with genuine overtaking opportunities making the track a firm favourite amongst drivers. The race consists of 57 laps spanning several hours, testing each driver’s technical ability and endurance.

The racetrack itself is able to seat 45,000 spectators with an impressive 10, 500 in the main grandstand. The familiar eight-storey Sakhir VIP tower also houses up to 500 journalists and is often where the royal family chooses to enjoy the races.

There are also dedicated buildings for 18 international teams and a state-of-the-art pit and paddock area to ensure the needs of the cars and their drivers are met. Soon after its build, the track became an integral part of the Bahraini landscape and has continued to impress till present day.

From its inception, the Bahrain Grand Prix set about establishing itself as different from all other Formula 1 races; it became a Grand Prix of many firsts. It was the first race to be held in a desert, the first race performed in such high temperatures and, most importantly, the first Grand Prix to be held in the Middle East.

However, it presented its own set of unique challenges. The desert conditions made drivers apprehensive; most had never driven near sand, which heavily impacts the grip of the track. The scorching temperatures of the Bahraini desert were also another problem but the April weather held off long enough for the race to go off with much success.

The first Bahrain Grand Prix took place on the 4th April 2004. The competition was steady with Michael Schumacher eventually edging out and coming in first place with a dizzying total lap time of one hour and 30 minutes. He secured his third victory of the season and eventually went on to win the series. The special relationship between the Bahrain Grand Prix and Schumacher continued over the years. In 2014 Bahraini organizers decided to name the first corner of the iconic track after former 7x winner Schumacher in support of his near-fatal skiing accident in late December 2013.

In line with Bahraini culture the champagne at the winner’s podium was replaced with an alcohol free rose-water substitute, Waard. Many regarded this decision as controversial but it strengthened Bahrain’s resolve to host a prestigious international event without compromising on its own culture.

For its inaugural Grand Prix, Bahrain had managed the impossible. It had successfully accommodated the needs of 20 drivers from 10 different nationalities and it had done so in a distinctly Bahraini manner. Every detail was considered and every need was accommodated with true Arab hospitality.

Internationally, the circuit was praised as one of the safest tracks in the world. Bahrain was complimented for its level of organization and commitment to the sport; winning an award in 2007 for the ‘Best Organized Grand Prix’. The electric atmosphere provided the drivers with the adrenaline needed and acknowledged the crowd as a reason for their success.

Domestically, the first Formula 1 in Bahrain increased interest in the sport in the Gulf by 780%; it became an annual event to be proud of. Under the guidance of the Sheikh, the first Formula 1 had succeeded in ushering in the next generation of Bahraini drivers. It proved hugely popular, introducing the sport to many young drivers and inspiring many future careers. The hope is that Bahraini drivers will be trained to eventually compete up to Formula 1 standards.

Over the next few years, the Bahrain Grand Prix continued its upward trajectory of success, impressing Formula 1 authorities. In 2006 and 2010 respectively, Bahrain was given the huge responsibility of hosting the first race of the season. This cemented Bahrain’s position as a world-class race. Since then the Grand Prix has gone off without a hitch, placing Bahrain back on top of motor sports in the Middle East.

Despite a second race currently being held in Abu Dhabi, and with Qatar vying to be the third, the Bahrain Grand Prix will forever be renowned as the leader of motor sports in the Middle East. It had put Bahrain firmly on the world stage and the Kingdom more than lived up to its expectations.

As the sport is about to enter its 66th season, the only question in everyone’s lips is what will 2016 bring?

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