During the British Grand Prix weekend RaceFans exclusively revealed that F1 was in discussions with Qatar’s Losail circuit to host a replacement for Australia’s cancelled race but added that politicking in the region – until recently sanctions against Qatar from a number of neighbouring states were in place, as were airspace bans for its airline – had complicated talks.having in 2015 jointly bid with RSE Ventures for the 35.5% stake of F1’s commercial rights held by CVC Capital Partners. Sports marketing company RSE is controlled by Stephen Ross and owns the Miami Dolphins, but is better known to F1 fans as promoter of the Miami Grand Prix – confirmed by F1 CEO and president Stefano Domenicali in April.
The rights were secured by Liberty Media instead. However it has long been suspected that, in gratitude for Ross canning his bid, Liberty looked favourably on his efforts to stage a grand prix in Miami. Hence the extraordinary lengths Liberty and RSE went to persuade Miami’s city fathers to approve the race. Perhaps a similar arrangement is in place for Qatar’s F1-ready circuit in Losail?
Qatar is believed to have applied for a grand prix during the Bernie Ecclestone era, but its approaches were rebuffed due to a ‘courtesy’ veto that had been granted to Bahrain by the former F1 tsar. However, according to high-ranking Bahraini sources this veto had no contractual standing. Ecclestone no longer controls F1’s commercial rights; thus there is no impediment to a race in Qatar.
All these factors had, however, existed since Liberty agreed to acquire F1’s rights at the end of 2016, yet there has been no talk of a grand prix in the emirate situated on the west coast of the Arabian Gulf. Indeed, when Liberty last year cast about for an additional race in the Middle East it turned to Bahrain for an event on the ‘outer’ circuit rather than travel to the nearby Qatari peninsula. True, there were some political tensions at the time, but F1 has generally disregarded these.
In order to fill the 23 slots on the 2021 F1 calendar, the series is presently seeking a replacement for the cancelled Australian Grand Prix. Why not a second race in Bahrain, potentially on the outer circuit again, ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix before the circus moves to Abu Dhabi for the season finale? The Bahrainis have, after all, been most obliging to F1 in its hours of need.
Surprisingly, the explanation may be connected to Formula 1’s eagerness to attract a new manufacturer entrant.
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Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund QIA holds the second-largest individual share block in Volkswagen Group – 14.6%, though the share structure is such that the fund holds 17% of the vote. Domenicali, as a former chief executive of one Volkswagen Group brand, Lamborghini, would surely have met and shared contact data with the Qataris during his four years at the helm of the supercar company.
Domenicali is absolutely determined to attract at least one VW Group brand to F1. Indeed, it is said to be one of the key objectives set for him by Liberty’s board. Hence the presence of his former peers Oliver Blume (Porsche) and Markus Duesmann (Audi) at the recent F1 engine summit. So exclusive was the invite list that Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff was not present, with the three-pointed star’s interests represented by CEO and chairman of Mercedes Cars Ola Källenius.
However, any tentative decision by either (or both) of the two VW Group brands to enter F1 – as engine supplier and/or team owner – would require main board ratification, which is precisely where Audi’s mooted entry fell down in 2014/5. That project was overseen by Domenicali prior to his Lamborghini appointment, and clearly he learned from that bitter disappointment.
Could the offer of a grand prix at the Losail circuit simply be sweetener to persuade the Qataris to look favourably upon an F1 engagement? After all, what better ally to have in the VW Group boardroom than the Qataris – anxious to have a ‘home’ grand prix at which to strut their products – and their 17% voting block?
Given that tribal rivalry is acute in the Middle East, what better motivation for the Qataris to vote in favour of an F1 entry than visuals of Bahraini royals crowding around ‘their’ McLaren F1 team on home soil? Crucially, the Bahrainis were recently joined as shareholders by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund; you can bet similar images will surface after Jeddah’s race. Incidentally, Kuwait’s fund owns 7% of Mercedes.
Getting a grand prix at Losail International Circuit signed and sealed for November is a tall order given the political tensions that exist in the region – although these cooled down of late – but all the parties have every reason to work towards agreement, with the big prize being not being the event itself but a commitment from one or both of the VW Group brands to enter F1.
Thus, the Qatar Grand Prix is likely to come to pass – using Moto GP’s night race infrastructure.
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