As the Formula One season draws to a close on Sunday at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit, so too does the Gulf region’s thrilling triple-header that saw Qatar and Saudi Arabia host Grand Prix for the first time, ahead of the season finale in the UAE — all within a four-week period.
The 2021 F1 campaign included four stops in the GCC, starting in Bahrain last March and wrapping up in the UAE capital this weekend; a clear indication of the growing importance of the region in the global motorsport calendar.
“I can certainly tell you from the teams’ perspective, they’ve been very happy to come here, simply because things have been organized at a very high level, since many years,” FIA Secretary General Peter Bayer told Arab News on Friday.
“Qatar was obviously new on the calendar, we were trying to help them as much as we could, but it was a great race.
“We then went to Saudi, which was a big success, I think given the short time you had available, it was outstanding, honestly, the achievements.”
The F1 traveling circus will return to the GCC in less than four months as the 2022 season starts with a double-header in Bahrain and Jeddah end of March, and will once again have its typical curtain-closer in Abu Dhabi. Qatar will skip next year’s term as it prepares to host the FIFA World Cup but starts a 10-year deal with F1 from 2023 onwards.
Bayer was particularly impressed by how the inaugural Saudi Grand Prix turned out and how it set up the world championship for a gripping title decider at Yas Marina Circuit.
“I was in Jeddah in January with president (Jean) Todt, because we went to see the Dakar Rally with Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal (president, Saudi Arabian Motor Federation), who took us to Jeddah to have a look at the track. And at the Corniche, he said, ‘Here will be the Formula One race’,” Bayer recalls.
“And we literally said, ‘We don’t believe you’, and he said, ‘You will see, we can do it’. And they delivered. Honestly, it was an outstanding event. Obviously the spectacle was clearly . . . given the media record figures, also because of the world championship fight is so close; so we’re very happy to come back to our traditional season finale in Abu Dhabi now, knowing it’s an experienced crew, outstanding event, so we’re looking forward to I think the most exciting final since 1974.”
Abu Dhabi made its F1 debut in 2009 and on Thursday it was announced the emirate has extended its contract for another 10 years. Former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone wishes it were a 50-year extension, not just 10.
“It’s obviously what they deserve; they do a first-class job, a lot of promoters have tried to follow them. Certainly when they came into Formula One, they started to raise the bar a bit, so it’s been good for Formula One,” Ecclestone said in a video message released by Yas Marina Circuit.
“But I’m a bit disappointed that the contract is only for 10 years because Formula One is for sure going to last another 50 years and the contract therefore should be extended for 50 years, because we don’t want a Formula One world championship without Abu Dhabi in the last race. They’ve always been the last race and it should stay that way.”
— Yas Marina Circuit (@ymcofficial) December 9, 2021
Bayer believes Abu Dhabi, and the region as a whole, has shown huge development in the sport and insists that the F1 calendar remains balanced, even with four stops in the Gulf scheduled for 2023.
“For us there are many reasons why we like to come here. If you look at next year’s global calendar, 23 events, we have 12 events in Europe, three in the Middle East, three in Asia-Pacific region and five in the Americas,” he explained.
“We will obviously increase by one in 2023 with Qatar coming back in the region with four, but at the same time Asia-Pacific will go one up with China coming back on the calendar; we cannot race there next year due to COVID-19.
“So we believe, as we are a global federation, that globally the balance of the events here is absolutely justifiable and perfect. At the same time it’s a region which is growing, which is diversifying a lot, which is something that’s extremely important for us.”
For the drivers, Abu Dhabi has grown to become a comfortable and popular place to finish the season each year. After a long and gruelling nine months of racing, returning to a destination renowned for its supreme hospitality has its perks.
“We’ve had Abu Dhabi as the last race for many years now. It’s quite a nice, it looks still impeccable, it’s a bit like Disneyland in many ways,” said four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel on Thursday.
“The track’s great, they’re trying to make it even nicer this year, looking forward to that. It’s obviously getting quite cold at home so it’s nice to have a couple of extra days in the warmth and to see new places as well. We had the Grand Prix in Saudi, the people there were quite enthusiastic, it was a very exciting track.
“It’s always nice to go to new places, meet different people and see different cultures.”
Bayer is pleased to see the “long-term dedication” of this region to the sport, and hailed Bahrain for stepping up when the pandemic hit and offering to host two races to make up for other canceled events.
“There is flexibility, there are perfect facilities, they’re state-of-the-art, there is no doubt in any of the countries what we’ve seen in the Middle East. For us it’s certainly one of the pillars F1 is building as a global sports and entertainment property,” Bayer said.
“I think it’s helping us also in the transition of our mindset, because we see here many countries which are oil or gas-driven originally, which are now transforming themselves into, be it tourism destinations, be it sustainable resource destinations, so there’s a lot of that happening, which is kind of the same transition Formula One is going through.
“From being a pure motorsport spectacle, developing into something which is a lot more; maybe you’ve seen our purpose-driven campaign, it’s very important for us to be at the forefront of sustainability and diversity matters.
“So we’re happy to benefit from the transition here, but at the same time also help to foster the steps that need to be made here.
“We’re perfectly happy to come back and obviously to have these long-term agreements being signed, which is extremely important for the sustainability of the sport. We have recently heard about Qatar, which is another 10-year agreement and we know about Saudi and Bahrain and their long-term dedication.”
With UAE’s Mohammed Bin Sulayem running for FIA presidency this month as Jean Todt ends his highly-successful 12-year tenure, Bayer sees that as yet another clear sign of how much the region is developing in the sport.
He believes the next step should be further efforts put into grassroots initiatives to foster local interest and talent.
“We need to see young people being drawn into the sport, we need to see karting facilities, karting championships; we need to see drivers’ development programs,” Bayer said.
“I think we need to make sure that between the local ASN, the governing body, and the organizers needs to be close collaboration with schools.
“One of the areas we are very keen on developing is STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — because not everybody can be a driver, but there are plenty of other opportunities in this world and we hope that together with the schools and our ASNs and the organizers, we can develop that path. That’s what we need to focus on for the future.”