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Exclusive | Sheikh Salman and 20 years of the Bahrain Grand Prix

Exclusive | Sheikh Salman and 20 years of the Bahrain Grand Prix

Exclusive | Sheikh Salman and 20 years of the Bahrain Grand Prix

During the 2024 Formula 1 World Championship opening Bahrain Grand Prix, I had the opportunity to interview Sheikh Salman Bin Isa Al Khalifa, one of the key figures of an idea that spawned the country’s first GP back in 2004.

Sheikh Salman Bin Isa Al Khalifa is a graduate of the National American University in Denver, Colorado, where he studied Applied Management. In 2004, he took his first official role at Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) as Head of Governmental Affairs.

He took an active part in how the circuit fulfilled its role within Bahrain’s community, as well as maximising the positive impressions of the country for the many visiting international guests and media each year.

Additionally, Sheikh Salman worked for Bahrain’s General Organisation for Youth and Sport and was Vice President of The Bahrain Motor Federation, while sitting on several sporting advisory boards including the FIA Single Seater Commission and the F1 Commission.

How Bahrain got the Grand Prix that was meant for Dubai

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In the early 2000s legend has it that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone to conclude a deal with Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum for a Dubai Grand Prix. The ruler of the Emirate was possibly ill-advised and kept the FOM entourage waiting too long.

Upon which Bernie ordered his jet to Bahrain, where he was well received and, as a result, history shows that Bahrain spearheaded the racing boom in the Middle East, by hosting F1 for the first time. Dubai never got a GP. That honour went to Abu Dhabi.

Bahrain’s example set the ball rolling as Abu Dhabi was added to the F1 calendar, and most recently Saudi Arabia and Qatar made it four GPs in the region. Fittingly the Kingdom hosts the opening race of the season and has been the go-to venue of choice for pre-season F1 Testing.

On the occasion of the 20th Grand Prix held at Sakhir, on the Friday before the race Sheikh Salman hosted the interview at the circuit he and his team built for the country’s Grand Prix. Charming, well-spoken and passionate about motorsport at all levels and an impeccable host, we sat down for a conversation.

“Amazing how this Sport has helped Bahrain move forward”

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 02: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 leads Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Ferrari SF-24 and the rest of the field during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 02, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Agnes Carlier: Do you remember how the decision was taken to have the first F1 event in Bahrain and how you prepared for the first GP in 2004?
Sheikh Salman: It was an agreement with Bernie Ecclestone and Bahrain. It was something that we were very passionate about. We had a history of motorsport before in 1952. The motor federation was behind us and strong. It was a continuation of that story. Then Bernie Ecclestone introduced us to Herman Tilke. Then, the story started by building the track and getting the FIA agreement. And this was twenty years ago…  amazing how this Sport has helped Bahrain move forward and helped the economic growth here.

Agnes: The Bahrain Grand Prix was a first in the Middle East…
Sheikh Salman: Bahrain were the first in the Gulf indeed. All the modern Grand Prix. We were the first in the Middle East and today we have four races with Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi. They all followed the leadership of Bahrain.

Agnes: Singapore in Asia started in 2008 – AbuDhabi only started in 2009 – Qatar in 2021. We also race in Turkey, Malaysia, Korea, Suzuka, India, and Azerbaijan. Are you proud to be the first GP in the Gulf?
Sheikh Salman: For us, it is a great time when the GP comes. The impact is very good for the country. It helps us push forward on the changes we want to make. Everyone comes and sees our small island, however. It competes with the big country that hosts the GP as well.

“We have invested in our human capital”

Exclusive | Sheikh Salman and 20 years of the Bahrain Grand Prix

Agnes: Do you feel that Bahrain Grand Prix had a leading role in the Gulf area? You describe the GP as the home of motorsport in the Middle East…
Sheikh Salman: The important thing is not that the Grand Prix comes for one week-end and goes. We have invested in our human capital. Be the marshals or the people at the race track. We have supported our friends in India, Azerbaijan, in Saudi in their first year by sending the marshals and the team there. They ran the races in India for two years for instance. Baku for three years, Saudi for the first year. The agreement is that we help and they move on. What is important for us is that you have a neighbour in the Gulf or a country in Asia or whatever that they don’t get through the same beginner mistakes. We won’t allow that. It is important that we say: We have been through this. Don’t make the same mistake. It saves time and cost for all. We come with a helping hand. We have been through this and Bahrain offers their support.

Agnes: Does a night race make it more appealing for spectators?
Sheikh Salman: On our tenth anniversary – 2014 – we moved to a night race. The Grand Prix weekends here have always been on a working day, on Sunday. It helps because the schools are off and the people are finished with their jobs. It gives them more time to come to the race.

Agnes: How does the Bahrain Grand Prix help the economy of the country?
Sheikh Salman: There is a direct impact. Look at the hotels, the rental cars, the restaurants. All of that. We get a study done by the economic board in Bahrain every other year. It shows a tremendous development. It helps: the restaurants and hotels are full and it translates to big numbers. It continues to come every year.
Not to compare, but Look at the Olympic Games, the impact is huge. But once only… every four years. Once a country has hosted it… no one knows when the next Olympics will be in the same country… An F1 Grand Prix and if you take four consecutive years of hosting it there is a big economic impact.

“I realised our dream had come true and we had the Bahrain Grand Prix”

Exclusive | Sheikh Salman and 20 years of the Bahrain Grand Prix

Agnes: What is your best memory in your 20 years of history… Schumacher winning the first GP in 2004? Alonso 2005 and 2006, 2010? Massa 2007 – 2008 – Jenson Button 2009 Vettel 2013, 2017 – Hamilton 2014, 2015, 2019, 2021 – Rosberg 2016 Leclerc 2022, Max Verstappen 2023?
Sheikh Salman: The best memory for me is probably when the five lights went out and we had the Grand Prix in 2004! That to me…I remember where I was standing. I realised our dream had come true and we had the Grand Prix. The second one, probably 2014 with Hamilton and Rosberg and the crowd cheering… Turn 1 and the cars were coming down the straight and you could hear the crowd rising up in the desert… The Duel in the Desert. That was something memorable.

Agnes:  Are you a racer?
Sheikh Salman: I love racing. I am not a “racer” but I have done some. The Middle East Porsche Super Cup was my first. I have done a few 24 hours in Dubai. I did GT races GT races, not single seater racing.

Agnes: Do you remember your emotion with the accident with Romain Grosjean?
Sheikh Salman: Of course, of course. We have a “major incident plan” that we rehearse on several occasions in the training sessions with the Marshalls. You study it. You work on it and you hope that you never use it.
That accident showed the training that we do and how it kicks in. I was very surprised at how everyone was prepared and calm. Everyone was doing their own assignment. There was not anything that we had to do. Grosjean was outside of the car in 28 seconds. However, on the track we had to fix the barriers and that was a bit more difficult. We did the concrete barriers in 25 or 30 minutes in order to resume the race and all that.
Yes, I remember. Fortunately, Grosjean got out of it. It shows the strength of the halo and the progress made by FIA in terms of the safety of the car has developed and saved lives so many times. Even in Monza with Hamilton-Verstappen… The safety of race cars has developed and that saved lives. It shows.

“Apart from the GP, this year we are close to 250 events planned at the track”

Agnes: You made this track live, every week something is happening on the track…
Sheikh Salman: The spectators use the track and are welcome at the track all the time. Pre-COVID we had about 300 events at the Bahrain track. After COVID, we are trying to bring that back. I think that this year we are close to 250 events planned at the track. The idea is to utilise the track and all the venues that you have and are existing. On weekdays we do fitness on track and invite guests to run and cycle here.
The idea is to utilise the track.

Agnes: What would you like this track to become?
Sheikh Salman: We have been selling out in the last three years. We have over thirty thousand spectators. Paddock club included. The capacity with grandstands is 35000 seats. Over the next three four or five years we need to look at expansion. We expanded the paddock club. We have been extending the team’s balconies so that they have more space and more comfort for their guests. We need to look at modernising the track a little bit. It has been 20 years! The cars also changed; they were lighter. They had more down forces. We don’t fix things. We look at modernising the track a bit. It is the beauty of working with the FIA as well on the track limits and all of that. We had to make quick decisions at the track after the testing session.

Agnes: Having a president like Mohamed Ben Sulayem does it change anything?
Sheikh Salman: No not really. The FIA is the FIA We deal through the ASN. The rules are the same. We are in Bahrain and the President is in Dubai.

Agnes: Do you see UAE, Bahrain, Saudi, and Qatar as a bit of competition ?
Sheikh Salman: I don’t think we are in competition. We do our own thing. We complement each other in building the fan base. We don’t have passionate fans like in Japan or in Europe. With the younger generation and Netflix… it is important. The people who were coming twenty years ago as they were kids, now they bring their kids. It took twenty years for that. We are still building the fan base. Now luckily, with Saudi, it is a huge country opened to motorsports, Dakar and rallies. It is great. We see the number coming across the causeway. The numbers every year are up and up. Saudi Arabia has the biggest number of tickets,, From the UK there 11 000 F1 fans flying in and spending, eating, renting and now the neighbours are coming over. Now it is on a weekend and not on Sunday when they work.. it is better

Agnes: Your plans for this F1 season?
To finish the race tomorrow! But I will probably be in Saudi as well…

Record crowds at 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix

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Tomorrow referred in closing by Sheikh Salman was Friday, 1 March, ahead of qualifying for the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix followed by Saturday race day in which we witnessed Max Verstappen romp to a commanding victory. Red Bull powered to a one-two, the winner followed distantly (22.5 seconds to be precise) by teammate Sergio Perez, with Ferrari duo Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc chasing.

With Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin hovering and a great deal of work to do. Notably the Verstappen-Perez one-two at last year’s GP in Bahrain, mirrored how the pair ended in the 2023 F1 Drivers’ standings when the season ended.

Nevertheless, be it a foregone conclusion, the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix was a big success according to local reports. The biggest attendance ever for the race in its two decades of being on the F1 calendar. A testament to the vision, passion and hard graft is the record number of F1 fans who make the ‘pilgrimage’ to Sakhir this year.

On track where the action is, the 20th edition of a GP at Sakhir set the stage for what will be a year of 19 drivers in hot in pursuit of triple F1 World Champ Verstappen, and be sure Sheikh Salman will be watching with great interest like all of us, because he too has Racing is in his Blood.