- Interview - Crown Prince of Bahrain Shaikh Salman
A party in the desert
If you're reading this, you'll almost certainly be glued to your TV set on Sunday for the first grand prix of the 2010 season in Bahrain. It is one of the most hotly-anticipated season openers of all time, with the return of Michael Schumacher, three new teams and a new set of regulations promising to make for a very exciting weekend. Essentially, the script is already written for a spectacular showdown in Sakhir.
But in the desert Kingdom of Bahrain nothing is left to chance. To make sure the race is truly unforgettable, the organisers, led by the Crown Prince of Bahrain Shaikh Salman, have invited every living world champion to attend. Amazingly nearly all of them have accepted and will parade their championship-winning cars around the circuit to celebrate 60 years of Formula One racing.
The list of invitees reads like the motorsport hall of fame: Mika Hakkinen, Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Alan Jones, Jody Scheckter, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Stewart, John Surtees and Jack Brabham. Of course, there are four world champions taking part in the Bahrain Grand Prix itself, with Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher all ready for battle.
Putting together such an event is no easy task. We're talking about asking F1 champions, with F1 champion-sized egos. to line up alongside each other as equals. But Shaikh Salman, the man who brought F1 to the Middle East in 2004, says that once the drivers heard about the idea they were very willing to take part.
"It's funny how the idea sometimes finds you," he said. "Every year we sit around a table and we ask how can we do better than last year? And how can we exceed the expectations of our visitors? We wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary and that means celebrating the drivers and the sport. So the idea kind of found us.
"It's amazing how much support we got as the idea snowballed and people attached to it and jumped on board. When we contacted drivers they said, 'That's fantastic, I want to be there'. Then we looked at the cars and the owners said they would love to reunite drivers like Andretti with cars like the Lotus 79. I don't want to say it was easy, every objective has its challenges - especially when you're dealing with racing drivers. But it was an idea that people bought into and appreciated."
With the pre-race show taken care of, Shaikh Salman turned his attention to the grand prix itself and new for this year will be an extra half mile of twisting circuit. The addition will throw another curve ball to the teams as they try to cope with heavier fuel loads, more tyre degradation and the resulting topsy-turvy race strategies.
"It'll be a track that the viewers have never seen before and it will make for a memorable race - we want to build memories associated with Bahrain," the Crown Prince explained. "There was nothing wrong with our previous track and we haven't actually cut out any major sections of it. What we've done is add a more technical aspect because the old track comprised of three long straights, very tight corners and a few high-downforce corners. It offered overtaking opportunities and made for a great track, but the extra circuit is tighter and adds another challenge. So we feel it's about balancing what a great track should be. That's the beauty with longer tracks like Spa Francorchamps, you have a mix of those different aspects.
"It will be a tough track on drivers, physically and for stamina, but it's also a very exciting track. Drivers will have to decide where to find the balance between high and low downforce. On a track with long straights you have low downforce for a higher top speed, but we've added a very high-downforce section where drivers will either have to compromise their driving or be forced to make an adjustment to the car. Combined with the fuel and the set-up changes, the layout should provide a level playing field as it will be new to all the teams."
For only the second time since 1996 the season opener is not taking place at the popular Albert Park circuit in Australia (Bahrain also got the prestigious slot in 2006). Shaikh Salman thinks it's a logical move and one that will stick as long as Bahrain continues to put on a good show.
"It is important for us to have the race but it also has to make sense," he explains. "Time-wise it's prefect, it will start at 12.00pm in the UK and 1.00pm in Europe. That's perfect for the big European market and better than starting in the middle of the night. That to me is common sense, why argue with that? And then for corporate partners bringing money to Formula One it's much easier for them to come to Bahrain. If you leave Europe on Friday afternoon, you can be here in the evening and then leave on Sunday night and be back in the office on Monday morning. So it does make sense and we are seeing the benefits of that and we hope to grow that."
By the time you read this, the cars will be at the circuit, the drivers will be on sponsorship duty and no desert rock will be left unturned in Shaikh Salman's pursuit of perfection. Fortunately, all you have to do is sit back, allow the nostalgia of the champions' parade to roll over you and watch the action unfold. But as you do, just spare a thought for the Crown Prince who admits: "I can't wait, but the problem is I probably won't even see the race because I'll be so busy."