From a low-key beginning with Bahrain in 2004, F1 now have four grands prix in the region, all with contracts that ensure they will be on the calendar for the foreseeable future.
Even allowing for the inevitable expansion beyond this year’s 22 races that is a high percentage of events concentrated in a relatively small part of the world. So how has it come to pass, and what does it mean for F1?
In the end it comes down, of course, to money. At a time when the world has been turned upside down by COVID-19, between them the four races provide F1 with a huge chunk of guaranteed income, and they represent the foundations on which to construct the rest of the calendar. Without major funding coming in from the venues, the teams can’t survive, and the series can’t function. It’s that simple.
Middle Eastern involvement in F1 is far from new, and it began in a humble way when Frank Williams put the first Saudi Airlines logos on his privateer March in 1977.
Williams also brought TAG and Mansour Ojjeh into F1. Ojjeh subsequently switched his allegiance to McLaren, becoming a major shareholder and helping the team to grow in the 1980s.
In retrospect it’s surprising that it took so long for F1 to fully exploit the region either via further team sponsorship deals or shareholdings, or in terms of events.
Over the years Bernie Ecclestone had discussions about possible races, but it wasn’t until April 2004 that F1 travelled to Bahrain.
Michael Schumacher leads the field at the start of the 2004 Bahrain GP
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Sakhir was the first example of a delayed follow-up to the success of the Malaysian GP – a series state-of-the-art circuits built by Hermann Tilke in the middle of nowhere, usually financed by governments of countries with little or no history of involvement in motorsport.
When F1 first went to Bahrain there were question marks over running F1 cars in a track built in the desert, not to mention security, amid UK government warnings of a terrorist threat. However that first weekend passed smoothly, and everyone was impressed by the quality of the venue, which was a further step ahead of Sepang.
“To have this in the Middle East is great,” Ojjeh said that weekend in 2004. “I think they did a great job, not only at the track, but I think everyone saw that the hospitality is fantastic.
“I think it’s going to give a good image to a lot of people who don’t know or understand this part of the world. They think of the stereotype Arabic Muslims – beards and radicals. But this is not the way it is.”
Ojjeh also made a prescient statement about the direction F1 was going to take: “This is the 21st century. Malaysia started it with these kinds of facilities, and when you look at the old continent and other places we go racing, it becomes either an embarrassment or a joke. This is the future.”
Crucially Bahrain had beaten other potential and globally better known local contenders to the finish line, and done exactly what its rulers wanted to do – raised the country’s profile.
“The others had a chance, but Bahrain just woke up,” Bernie Ecclestone said. “You can always improve on what other people have done, can’t you? But when you think that these people have built this in the middle of the desert, basically, it says a lot for them.”
If there was one major criticism it was that the crowd was small, with locals perhaps put off by high prices.
“It’s a brand-new race, it’s the first time in this part of the world,” said Ecclestone. “I suppose if you brought camel racing to London you probably wouldn’t get a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning. When they get used to it they’ll probably like it.
“They obviously know what they can charge and what they can’t charge. The important thing is that we will be growing in the Middle East.”
At the time Dubai already had a circuit capable of holding a grand prix, but Ecclestone was adamant that he wasn’t looking for a second venue locally.
“No, I think we’re alright,” he said. “This is going to service this part of the world.”
Ecclestone had plenty of balls in the air at the time. China was coming on stream later in 2004, Turkey was due to join in 2005, and other projects were in discussion. He didn’t need Dubai.
Then in February 2007 came the confirmation that, contrary to Ecclestone’s earlier assertions, there would indeed be a second race in the region from 2009.
Sebastian Vettel leading the 2009 Abu Dhabi GP
Photo by: Steve Etherington / LAT
Abu Dhabi made an offer that he couldn’t refuse, promising to raise the game with a track that really would move F1 into the 21st century. And it agreed to pay a premium to guarantee the season-closing slot on the calendar.
Bahrain, which had extended its F1 involvement by buying a major shareholding in McLaren just weeks earlier, thus lost its exclusive position as the Middle East’s only grand prix venue. The upside was that a second event at the other end of the season would potentially boost F1 across the region.
Ecclestone remained adamant that those two races were enough. However, that philosophy soon changed under Liberty Media ownership. From the start of the Chase Carey era there was an understandable urgency to find new venues and create lucrative “Liberty-owned” events that moved F1 on from the Ecclestone days.
As high-profile projects like Miami and Vietnam faltered, Saudi Arabia – presaged by an F1 sponsorship deal with petrochemical giant Aramco – emerged as a safe bet for a future race. Saudi’s plans were tied not just to general promotion of the country, but also to its specific ambitions to move away from relying on oil money by 2030.
The scale of Saudi’s commitment was evidenced by the fact that it was willing to create a stunning street track next to the sea in Jeddah for 2021 and then eventually supersede it with a brand-new venue at the Al-Qiddiya entertainment complex that is being constructed in Riyadh.
“In terms of Saudi Arabia, it was phenomenal to be able to get that deal agreed and signed and announced during the pandemic,” F1’s calendar specialist Chloe Targett-Adams said earlier this year.
“It’s somewhere we’re really excited about going racing, and it’s a longer-term vision of how we want to build our sport in the Middle East.
“We’ve got two amazing partners in the Middle East already on the promotion side, with Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, both long-term relationships, incredibly successful.
“And so to bring on a new Middle Eastern race in a location like Saudi with a hugely young demographic, vast population, interest in the motorsport and automotive sector, and the ability then as a market to tap into Northern Africa and other aspects of the Middle East, provides a really interesting framework for F1.”
As Targett-Adams noted the deal was done in the middle of the pandemic, and provided a crucial guarantee of future income that Liberty, its shareholders and the teams really needed.
The region also played a key role in ensuring that we enjoyed a decent season in 2020, with the two Bahrain races and the Abu Dhabi finale providing not just direct income but also helping to bring the season total up to 17, ensuring that TV companies paid their full contracted fees.
Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20, 1st position, crosses the line for victory to the delight of his team
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
If anyone thought that three venues was the limit, they were to be proved wrong. As the pandemic issues continued into 2021 and races again began to slip from the calendar new F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali began to look for events to fill the gaps.
There would be no free or cheap deals, and thus no second chance for the likes of Mugello or the Nurburgring. In addition there was a focus on flyaway races to slot in between Russia and Abu Dhabi, the two signposts that were pretty much always guaranteed to happen.
It was essentially a case of looking for venues outside Europe with a Grade 1 FIA licence that might have money to spend – and Qatar, whose Losail circuit had hosted MotoGP for as long as Bahrain had an F1 race, emerged as a likely candidate.
What started as a discussion over a one-off event to fill a hole in the 2021 schedule developed into something much bigger – a one-off race in 2021, a break in 2022 while Qatar runs the FIFA World Cup, and then a new 10-year deal to run from 2023 to 2032.
“F1 is in a great moment,” Domenicali said at Thursday’s announcement. “It’s a great championship, a great attention to all of us. But despite the great success, we were living a COVID situation that forced us to be always flexible and find solutions.
“Starting the discussion in April, it was incredible, the way that we saw the Qatari federation to be ready to host a grand prix, because we had the chance to have one race instead of another venue that cancelled a race.
“And the step versus the future, what has been announced, our strong partnership for the future, was very, very short and immediate.”
While nothing has been confirmed plans are in hand for Losail to be replaced either by a seaside street circuit that would rival Jeddah, or by a brand-new permanent facility in the desert.
It’s a huge commitment, and the deal represents a massive win for Domenicali given that Qatar wasn’t even on the radar just a few months ago. He also had to pull it off while placating his existing partners in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. The relationships between these countries and their rulers are complex, and F1 had to tread a fine line in keeping everyone happy.
Losail isn’t the most attractive venue, but like the MotoGP event it will be another night race, and that has its own appeal. It also falls into a prime time TV slot in Europe.
Losail International Circuit aerial view
The wider benefits for Qatar are obvious. It beat its neighbours to the punch by securing the World Cup, and an ongoing grand prix deal will be part of the legacy as it attempts to keep up its profile once football has left. We’ve seen similar things happen in the past with Montreal and Sochi doing F1 deals after running their respective Olympic Games.
But should there be four F1 races in a Middle East? That’s a question that vexes many of the F1’s insiders, never mind fans.
Inevitably there are concerns that they may squeeze out more traditional venues in Europe – the sort of places that everyone enjoyed visiting over the last couple of seasons when COVID shook things up and gave forgotten venues another chance, or allowed new ones like Mugello to be introduced.
An alternative view is that the big-paying countries provide guaranteed income that in turn helps F1 to give European circuits – and especially those not subsidised by governments – deals that allow them to survive.
There may also be concerns at F1 that some flyaway races that have hitherto been mainstays of the calendar may never return after their enforced COVID breaks. Better to have too many contracted races to choose from than too few…
One of Domenicali’s key arguments for expanding in the Middle East is that the via the likes of Aramco the region is at the forefront of developing alternative fuels, a direction F1 is taking.
“We always said, this region represents a milestone for the strategic development of F1,” he said last week.
“We see a lot of potential of growth, we see that we can enhance what is F1, it’s technology research, it’s sporting activation. It’s something that is also related to the fact that we do believe that we have a responsibility versus the future of our sustainable project.
“And I think with the powers that we can have here, we can really enhance that, making sure that our future is leading to a platform that is from one side, very, very popular, and very sustainable.”
Sustainability is a powerful and politically correct card for F1 to play. However, all of the activity in the Middle East is also happening against the background of the ongoing debate over human rights.
Saudi Arabia is a major focus of activists, but the Qatar announcement also caught the attention of groups such as Amnesty International, who accuse F1 of sportswashing.
Abdulrahman Al Mannai, President Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation, Stefano Domenicali, President and CEO F1
Photo by: Formula 1
F1 is well aware that it has to tackle the issue, and the organisation insists that it is doing so, noting: “We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence.”
The general view, and one that is espoused by FIA president Jean Todt, is that a high-profile event like a grand prix allows activists to draw attention to their objections.
“We are a sport,” Todt said in July. ”It’s also something I discussed very often with the International Olympic Committee, with Thomas Bach. Because they have the same problem. And clearly we consider that sport should not be involved with politics.
“We need to engage with NGOs. And I mean, good NGOs, like Human Rights Watch, who are proper people, to try to say, what kind of contribution we can give? So we are working, we’re working on that.
“In my opinion, going in those countries gives also the chance for people who are negative about the country to speak, which probably they would not have otherwise. So, as I said, it’s a lot of question of interpretation. But, for me, I feel right.”
It’s an important issue, and one that the championship’s key stakeholders cannot ignore, as many fans have made clear on social media.
Meanwhile on the sporting side the presence of two brand new venues in the run-in to the Abu Dhabi finale will add an extra twist to the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. And Domenicali is adamant that Losail will play its part in that contest.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images