How a chance meeting sparked the Middle East’s rise as an F1 power


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This year’s Formula 1 calendar lists four Middle Eastern venues, six if the Turkish and Azerbaijani races are included, as they should be by some definitions of the region. Yet less than 20 years ago F1 was effectively a fringe sport in the region, followed mainly by petrolheads ex-patriates who had been introduced to the sport elsewhere and were subsequently forced to obtain their fortnightly fixes via magazines and satellite dishes.

True, there had been dabbles by Saudi companies during the seventies and eighties, epitomised by the national airline’s sponsorship of Williams, with associated entities also joining the team’s partner roster. Meanwhile McLaren persuaded the TAG Group to jump ship from Williams and sponsor Porsche turbo engine it had commissioned, with the latter eventually buying into the team.

However, the entries of Arabian entities into F1 were – certainly initially – more down to the enthusiasm of the then-young Prince Muhammad bin Fahd (Saudia) and Mansour Ojjeh, scion of the TAG-owning family than any greater regional aspirations. Indeed, apart from a healthy regional rally championship there was little passion for motorsport in the Gulf despite its plentiful fossil fuel reserves.

The first steps towards the region’s rise to F1 superpower status were plotted in 2000, and not in a paddock or discreet London office but in a supersonic jet cruising above the Atlantic at 18,000 metres. By chance the Concorde flight’s passenger manifest included triple F1 champion Jackie Stewart, who criss-crossed the Atlantic so often he was allocated seat 1A, and Bahrain’s (then) 30-year-old Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

Losail International Circuit, 2021
Qatar will hold its first F1 race this weekend; Saudi Arabia follows
The royal was flying to New York to address the United Nations about his country’s plans to convert from emirate to kingdom. He shared his vision of putting the tiny desert island on the global map as a regional financial hub with Stewart, who suggested a Bahrain Grand Prix as a means of gaining recognition, adding that he could propose the idea to Bernie Ecclestone.

F1’s chief at the time was initially aghast about racing in a desert but warmed once astronomical hosting fees were murmured. Still, having been thought radical by team bosses for adding Malaysia to the calendar, he mandated Stewart to seek unanimous approval; all bar Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo bought into the idea.

Stewart and the prince flew to Maranello to persuade Ferrari’s president, to no avail: Ferrari and deserts did not mix, explained the Bolognese aristocrat as he prepared to show them out. As they walked down the steps the Bahraini spotted a photograph of a youthful Montezemolo kneeling beside Niki Lauda’s 1975 world title-winning Ferrari.

“How old were you?” he asked the man who had led the team to its first title in 11 years. Upon being told, “25,” the royal smiled. “Never underestimate youth…”

“You’ve got your race,” said Montezemolo after a pause.

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Work on a ‘super-stadium’ circuit began immediately, with the venue hosting its first grand prix in 2004 – a race won, ironically, by Ferrari. In a further twist, a year later Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala sovereign wealth fund acquired a five per cent slice in Ferrari – since sold – while the fund in 2008 bankrolled a giant Ferrari World theme park on Yas Island, also scene of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from 2009. Ferrari and deserts do mix…

Ferrari was hesitant at first but has now embraced the region
Last year Bahrain hosted two ‘Covid’ races: one on its traditional grand prix circuit, a second on the ‘outer ring’, with the season ending, as has become traditional, in Abu Dhabi. Thus, three grands prix were staged within three weeks within a radius of 500km – not bad for a region that less than 20 years ago had not seen or heard a grand prix car run in anger.

The original 2021 schedule again listed three fixtures in the Gulf, one in Bahrain (March), the season-closing Abu Dhabi round and a debutante street race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia scheduled for early December. Nor do Saudi’s aspirations, though, stop there: Qiddiya, a giant entertainment complex and futuristic mega-city is currently under construction around 40km west of the capital Riyadh.

Plans include an FIA Grade One grand prix circuit featuring an illuminated race-through aquarium section – perfect for glitzy night races – with former F1 driver Alexander Wurz (and GPDA chairman) having provided design input. Thus, Saudi could eventually host two F1 grands prix per year: a street event on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit a road course round in Qiddiya.

“We’re building [the circuit] so we’re able to host Moto GP events, WEC, regional and national championship events, all the way up to F1. A Grade One licence is synonymous with F1, so we’re hopeful it comes to pass for us,” said a Qiddiya spokesperson. Then consider: where is the Dakar Rally staged? Where did Extreme E host its first event? Saudi has also hosted Formula E.

Despite denials its headquarters could be relocated to Dubai, it not inconceivable that the FIA could establish a base there – Emirati Mohammed bin Sulayem has announced his candidacy in the race to succeed Jean Todt as president of the global motoring organisation. Insiders suggest the 14-time Middle East rally champion enjoys backing from not only his government and regional clubs, but also from several African and Asian motoring organisations. Thus, he could be elected as first non-European FIA president.

The pandemic has, though, facilitated yet another Gulf F1 race this year, saliently one (unexpectedly) staged this weekend, a fortnight before Saudi’s inaugural grand prix: In Qatar on the Losail International Circuit better known for night Moto GP races the venue staged from 2008, a year before F1 got in on the spectacle. Announced a month ago, the race plugs the gap caused by cancellation of Australia’s round.

Qiddiya plan, 2019
Report: Saudi Arabia planning Spa-beating longest F1 track for its first race
Significantly, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund holds an effective 17% of VW Group, providing the country with sufficient clout to influence board decisions such as the current debate as to whether Porsche and Audi should enter F1; if so, in which form – as engine supplier or full team.

Indeed, cynics suggest a Qatar Grand Prix is a sweetener for board members, no doubt aware that Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat, Saudi-owned TAG Group and that country’s Public Investment Fund collectively hold 70% of the supercar manufacturer and F1 team’s equity. Equally, Kuwait’s fund owns 6,8% of Mercedes parent company Daimler; on that basis Kuwait could well be the next F1 host…

Qatar’s inclusion kicks off a trilogy of Gulf F1 events, making for a quartet of F1 grands prix in the Gulf region in a year, effectively one per 10m inhabitants across four countries, akin to Britain hosting grands prix in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or the USA one in every second state. This Arabian theme is due to continue for the foreseeable future: Bahrain and Saudi Arabia open the 2022 season; Yas closes it.

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Then, Qatar makes a return in 2023 – for ten years – having elected to sit out next year due to its hosting of the FIFA World Cup. The question is: Given this crowded marketplace what does Qatar, which previously set itself apart from other Gulf countries by embracing Moto GP rather than F1, hope to gain from its long-term F1 commitment, regardless of any move(s) by VW Group to enter the sport.

For starters, Qatar plans to capitalise on its 2022 FIFA World Cup commercial and hospitality infrastructures and experiences by hosting a truly global events on an annual basis, a box only partially ticket by Moto GP, which records more modest TV and audience figures – evidenced by the fact that the Losail circuit had just 7,500 grandstand seats whereas for this year’s F1 event that figure is being upped four-fold despite the short ticket sales window.

Post-World Cup Qatar plans to position itself as a global sport management and marketing centre and having the world’s largest annual sporting block visit the desert peninsula creates enormous credibility and commercial opportunities, far more than, say, Moto GP does and could – which, forget not, has visited the country since 2004 yet has thus far failed to gain traction at other circuits in the region.

Although criticism has been aimed at Losail circuit, which previously successfully hosted WTCC and GP2 rounds, for being compact and in many aspects ‘non-F1’ for being narrower and less spectacular than circuits in neighbouring states, the key factor is that the event stepped into the breach created by the cancellation of the Austrian round at extremely short notice and thus makes no excuses for its lack of certain facilities.

Frankly, though, without Qatar the season would probably have been a leg shorter and who would want that situation at this stage of the title battle? Apart from expanding grandstand seating and garage and hospitality areas for the event, the circuit was also required to substantially upgrade the on-track installations to make them suitable for F1; thus (much-derided) sausage kerbs have been installed and TecPro and other barriers erected.

That said, RaceFans understands the Qatar Motor and Motorsport Federation, which first evaluated hosting an F1 grand prix in 2014 and subsequently revisited the topic on numerous occasions, has plans to host the 2023-onwards events either on a coastal street circuit cutting through Doha or on a bespoke F1 facility on the outskirts of the capital – pointing to a massive future commitment towards F1.

Start, GP2 Asia, Losail, 2009
Losail’s lighting has been upgraded since one-off GP2 Asia visit
A new lighting system, said to be the most advanced in the world in terms of sustainability and lumens was installed earlier this for what will be a twilight race starting a 17:00 local time. True, it was installed as upgrade for the Moto GP system but with F1 in mind. That factor is key to this weekend: Although a stopgap event, it had been a long time in the planning and that shows in Losail’s readiness at such short notice.

The lighting system uses failsafe ‘blocks’ of lights and backup generators which are alternately connected to prevent a total blackout, with all parts of the track remaining sufficiently illuminated in the event of failure within the system, which draws on 1,000 lamp posts and 3,600 floodlights connected to 44 13-megawatt generators via 500km of cable to provide sufficient light to illuminate 70 football stadiums or 3,000 medium-sized homes.

Thus, the eyes of all F1 fans will be on Qatar this year, with Losail hoping to enter the record books with a sparkling continuation of the Max VerstappenLewis Hamilton and Mercedes-Red Bull battles (listed in championship sequence), hopefully with even more twists and turns than were experienced in Austin, Mexico City and Sao Paulo.

One thing is sure: Qatar could not have chosen as better season to makes its F1 debut. From there the circus moves around 1,000km to the next venue and then the same distance to the finale. Not since the end-of-season battles were fought out in Europe – in 1984 – have the final three races been held in one geographic region, yet the Middle East did so a year ago and does so again over the next month.

Jeddah Corniche Circuit construction, 2021
F1 will head to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia after Qatar
Whether (or not) the Middle East would, though, have embraced Formula 1 to the same extent without a chance meeting between a triple champion and crown prince aboard a Concorde flight – or even without the ‘youth’ comment to Montezemolo – will never be known. Whatever, the outcome certainly put Bahrain on the global map, with the rest of the region following in the island’s slipstream.

Is there a single F1 fan who has not heard of Bahrain? Or of Abu Dhabi, for that matter? Now it’s Qatar’s turn. Next, Kuwait?

Clearly, then, the Middle East has evolved into prime F1 territory and the sport’s coffers would be massively depleted – to the tune of around $300m per annum, a sum unlikely to be replaced by other sources at anywhere near the same values in the short term, if at all – and thus, regardless of the region’s politics, F1 will increasingly embrace the Middle East in future. Qatar is F1’s latest addition to the Gulf’s F1 roster, but it is unlikely to be the last.


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36 comments on “How a chance meeting sparked the Middle East’s rise as an F1 power”

  1. Racing in the center of world oil reserved countries should seen as ‘F1 Coming Home’.

    1. ……connected to 44 13-megawatt generators…..

      That’s 572 megawatts, about half the output of a typical nuclear reactor. I suspect this isn’t correct….

  2. Leaked transcript of the chance metting:
    “Hi, I am money”
    “Hello, I am FIA.”

    1. Exactly this – nothing chance about it and all about money buying people off

  3. I don’t suppose any moral opposition to the medieval, barbaric & inhumane practise of beheading living people was raised?
    I 100% know that won’t be on any woke t shirts.

    1. Andy Bunting, I am sick of hypocritical comments like this always unfairly targeting out the gulf states and the middle east yet silent on other nations F1 races at.

      One example is china who has equal if not more barbaric abuses and the ground zero of the pandemic which arguably caused more chaos and destruction on a world stage but you never here posts condemning them when they host the chinese GP do you?

      Why is it ok to pick on the gulf states and the middle east but china is off limits in regards to criticism?!

      1. Sincerely, I think no one is immune on this site.
        I am pretty sure that people usually raise the reeducation camps issue in regards to China.
        Antiracism/diversity campaigns are mostly targeting western countries. And usually those campaigns receive large support on the comment section. Not to mention civersity initiative that also mostly target western countries.
        Every other image/segment on Brazil, shows wealth inequality – particularly around Interlagos.
        Trolling or not, this site audience leaves nothing on the table. For instance, some questioned why hamilton didnt wear a tshirt with some topical criticism on gulf states or russian alleged HR violations.
        Gulf states are the focal point on the moment because the expansion of F1 there nd the next race is in the region.

        1. Agree, I’m quite happy for State sins to be broadcast for discourse every time FIA races – at the very least to minimise the sports-washing that appears to be the main reason these races are funded by questionable regimes.

      2. I agree with you on those unfair comments around the gulf states. But I believe your recent comments about China are quite unfair as well.
        Yes, there are more negative reports on China nowadays, but most of them are biased or even fake, which mainly is the result of tense relationship between US and China.
        Don’t be too extreme politically, mate.

  4. I’d love to know what the science of ‘crowd support’ is. I wouldn’t know how you quantify it. I guess it’s ‘psychological’ in nature, but it must be true that people perform better with a crowd behind them. Liverpool and Anfield et al. Why do people run faster, make better decisions? Things seem to matter more with noise, emotions run higher, but the concept is the still same if you were to mute everyone who isn’t directly involved the game / race, and in theory it should still play out the same, regardless of the people stood on the outside, but it doesn’t, we enjoy things more with the noise.

    The first corner, first lap at COTA, the way the crowd reacted, I’m sure Liberty had the grandstands ‘mic’ed up’, but the ‘gasps’ were real, it made it all the more exciting.

    That’s my only issue with Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. They feel a little ‘soulless’ in nature. A bit clinical. Zandvoort or Monza or Mexico City should in theory be fairly rubbish F1 tracks, one is about as wide as the average living room, the other two just put a brick on the accelerator 80% of the lap.

    They work because of the crowds, I don’t know how you create that in Abu Dhabi or Qatar. Perhaps that’s not the goal. I don’t know. But I’d rather watch Zandvoort over Abu Dhabi, not because one is a good track and the other isn’t, but the grandstands make a weird, hard to quantify difference.

  5. I’m biased because I live in the region, but I’m personally stoked at the prospect of having all these races on my doorstep.

    I’d urge anyone who’s first reaction to a Middle East country hosting an F1 race is to type something furious about human rights to do two things before hitting send on your comment/tweet/[insert favoured platform here]: (1) Think on your own home country’s human rights record – As a British person I know my country’s record is very much not clean (what with all the colonisation, slavery and supporting America’s unjustified invasions of countries in the 20th century); and (2) actually come to the region, meet local people and speak to them to understand their views, you will find you have more in common with them than you think (and no, spending a week in a Dubai resort does not count when you try tick this one off).

    1. @geemac Unfortunately point 1 would never work, as Brits’ knowledge of their atrocities is… lacking. I’m Irish and can assure you of this ;)

      I do think that the Middle East is at risk of oversaturating its presence in F1 with so many races, but you might as well enjoy them while you have so much choice!

      1. 4 races in the region is hardly over-saturation when you consider there are 10 races in Western Europe next season, 4 in North America (with a 5th on its way by all accounts).

        1. @ajayrious Europe (and North America by some extent) are continents, where combined ‘have’ 90% of F1’s entire history, the Arabian Peninsula is a small part of a continent that up until 17 years ago didn’t have a single track.

          The Arabian Peninsula has just 48.5 million people and 4 (definately not-well attended) races… so 1 race per 12 million (it’s like having 4 races just in Spain for example).
          Europe has 10 for 289 million… so 1 race per 29 million, North America has 4 for 496 million… so 1 race per 124 million and almost all the races in both continents are sold-out… so there’s clearly more interest there, than in the Middle East.

          So yeah, I would say 4 races in a small region as the Arabian Peninsula is oversaturation.

    2. I don’t people like me have objection to most of the local population. It’s the cruel, corrupt and greedy rulers and governments they object to. The kind that abuse sections of their own population and covertly support terrorism around the world.

      1. It’s the cruel, corrupt and greedy rulers and governments they object to.

        Take all the cruel, corrupt and greedy rulers and governments off the F1 calendar and there wouldnt be much left.

        Its not that many years ago since an Italian head of state was accused of having a journalist murdered. So I guess we’d better stop the Italian GP then.

        1. We know for certain that a member of the Saudi royal family had a critical journalist murdered. But the Saudi’s are offering big money such let’s all just turn a blind eye to this.

          I think the Italian case was just an accusation.

    3. Are you really comparing human rights in Britain with those in Saudi Arabia and the UAE?

      1. @dang Yes. You can’t spout off about human rights while you sell weapons to the Saudis and support America’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst Britain’s many other historical atrocities. Just because the history books you read are written by the British doesn’t mean they weren’t attoricties. My point is that no country and no government is squeaky clean, so it is hypocritical to single out the Middle East.

        Just so I’m not accused of only singling out the UK and the USA, here is another example: Japan, we all love Japan right, good food, crazy fans and a great track. There is nothing wrong with going to Japan at all, right? Ask the people of Nanjing (previously Nanking) what they think of Japan’s human rights record.

    4. Agree with @geemac just ask locals and see what their view, don’t just heard some random news on the media but check yourself first handed. And then see like what geemac has pointed in his first point at your own country… And then you can conclude yourself

      Anyway, in my view of course it’s great to have a new race, but i think the total race in the calendar year should be capped maximum at 22 races.. And yes it’s too much races in the middle east for my personal liking, i’d like to see them rotated each year ideally. But i guess they already pay so much money to host the race and yeah it’s what we’ve got now, just try to enjoy and see what’s going to happen.. Hopefully the spectacle will be good!

  6. Really looking foward for these races.

  7. When the Bahrain Grand Prix first joined the calendar, my understanding was that it had gained an exclusivity agreement to prevent other Middle East countries from competing. That seemed to have gone by the wayside by 2009 (or did Abu Dhabi have this agreement to prevent a third race?) , and at this stage I can see F1 being more of a political playground in the region than ever before.

    The money involved in these super-projects is staggering. Obviously the organisers have more than just F1 in their sights – these countries are all vying to become business hubs for the 21st century. But with so many projects being planned simultaneously, it raises the risk of F1 being stranded in the middle if they start falling through. Think of the Korean Grand Prix in Yeongam that was supposed to have a central business district running through the middle, only much more expensive.

    I get why FOM would be tempted, as the ~$500m loss from 2020 has to be plugged from somewhere. But what of the FIA? Their political presence in Paris/Europe is threatened by this…

    1. @ciaran Dieter mentioned in an article recently that the Bahrain veto (which I also understood existed) was just a gentleman’s agreement between Bernie and the Bahraini promoters, it was never written down in any agreement, hence why they can have Qatar and Saudi Arabia now. Bernie ran the idea of Abu Dhabi by the Bahrain promoters before announcing the race by all accounts and they agreed.

  8. If Losail indeed won’t remain as the Qatar GP location (even with some modifications), my preference between a new permanent circuit & a temporary one, similar to Jeddah, is definitely the former.
    Once Qatar rejoins as a regular, F1 will have four Middle Eastern races, so I wonder how many more would be realistic, noting the Kuwait mentions. Not that I’d mind an awful lot if Kuwait joined someday.

  9. Kuwait already has a F1 grade circuit – Kuwait Motor Town – it in fact has both a FIA Grade 1 and a FIM Grade A (Moto GP/Bikes) license.

    So if the Kuwaities want it – they are pretty much ready to go whenever they want. So far Kuwait hasn’t gone down the line of Sports or Events for diversification, nor despite their wealth do they do much self promotion (unless I have just missed it).

    1. I don’t think they’re ready yet. There’s still a good chunk of hospitality facilities needed around the track. Also IMO they need to first get some smaller and local championships before going full F1.

      Here’s the official website of the circuit if anyone is interested

  10. Wow! Incredibly detailed article.

    1. Yet there’s a obvious glaring typo in the first paragraph alone…

  11. “Money talks” — Lewis Hamilton 2021

    1. Yeah and Lewis certainly takes a good share of the pot!

  12. Is that Franchitti driving Alan Jones’ Williams?

  13. @dang Dunno, the Empire massacred lots of innocents in their former colonies. And unlike Germany, they never had to pay reparations, apologise or purge any remnants of those ideologies.

  14. The Middle East has more races than the continents on Africa, North America, South America and Australia combined! I think that may be a bit excessive.

  15. So if we get some draconian European nation or North Korea stump up an offer af a huge fee, does that automatically put them high on the list for a race?

    Let’s face it, if it’s just a case of interested countries putting up enough cash, we could end up with all of the “traditional” venues being wiped out by venues in countries that don’t really have any “fans” per se or even motorsports but want to fast track some kind of international exposure for whatever reasons.

  16. ” 1,000 lamp posts and 3,600 floodlights connected to 44 13-megawatt generators via 500km of cable to provide sufficient light to illuminate 70 football stadiums or 3,000 medium-sized homes”

    Paragon of “sustainability”.

    Love it.

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