The race in Sakhir, on the small island kingdom of Bahrain, with its combination of sand, sun, sea, and high-rise skyscrapers has the appearance of a futuristic utopian desert island. However, like most Formula One races the picture postcard vista is shrouded in political unrest - except this one doesn’t necessarily have Bernie Ecclestone at its core.
The sovereign state is the pioneer of Formula One racing in the Middle East and was the brainchild of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifas’s son, the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. He is regarded by many to be a moderniser and a reformer, in contrast to the long serving Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, and he saw the potential of an international event that had the ability to introduce the country to a huge global audience.
A purpose-built course was built in what is essentially a desert and the first race went off without any hitches on the memorable date ‘04.04.04’.
Together with its other internal reforms, Bahrain has positioned itself as a progressive Gulf state, open to the West and its influences. Formula One proved a brilliant platform to express that message. The country and the staging of the race flourished until 2011 when local unrest among Shia Muslims, who make up the majority of the population in Bahrain, ended in violent protests against the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family.
The dissension, coupled with stories of poor human rights in the island kingdom, forced the postponement and then the cancellation of the Grand Prix in 2011, after drivers including Damon Hill and Mark Webber had protested in turn to the FIA.
Racing returned to the Bahrain International Circuit in 2012, becoming Formula One’s second twilight race in 2014, but the simmering unrest still causes a shadow over the run-up to race weekend. Countless pressure groups still take umbrage with the FIA lining the pockets and promoting a state with such a harsh fiscal and social divide coupled with a poor human rights record.
The FOM had taken a stance of indifference when dealing with these issues. A reluctance to acknowledge the subject was transformed in the run up to last year’s race when the pressure group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) successfully mediated a complaint to the United Kingdom National Contact Point.
The complaint alleged that Formula One had breached the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines on responsible business, doing nothing to prevent the Bahraini government launching a merciless and bloody crackdown on protesters in the lead up to the 2012 and 2013 races.
In spite of the political turbulence the Grand Prix was attended by 38,140 spectators in 2014 and Nigel Geach, of Repucom, thinks that after all the civil unrest the Bahrain International Circuit is finally undergoing a renaissance.
“Unfortunately it has been overtaken a bit by the other circuits in the region,” he adds, before describing Sakhir as “a good circuit which has had its political problems that were a bit overplayed.”
“The trouble is they have it on a Sunday, which is a working day, and I think the twilight situation there - to put lights around the circuit - is a huge investment and a good example of how local governments and local authorities can change a circuit. Last year was the first twilight, but a good race and a good attraction.”