INTERVIEW: The ex-pharmacist growing Gulf's F1 family

Mark Lomas 19/04/2015
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The Bahrain GP is renowned for its night race.

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN — Since its inception, the Bahrain Grand Prix has built a reputation among media, fans and the wider motorsport community as F1’s ‘friendly Grand Prix’.

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From the free transport to the race, the warm welcome by the staff on site and the variety of activities on show, this is a Grand Prix for all ages.

It is not a reputation that has been stumbled upon but a direct objective of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) – to create an all-encompassing ‘festival’ which caters for everyone from the least petrol headed consumer to the man dressed head to toe in Ferrari attire who travels the world to follow the racing calendar.

With the Bahrain Grand Prix now entering its 11th year, BIC commercial director Sherif Al Mahdy reflects fondly on the growth of the race and the product which has been created

“We are organising a festival, not only an F1 race,” Al Mahdy tells Sport360 while sitting on the traditional Arabic seating dotted around the circuit.

“You need to attract people to come and watch the race and we are still new to circuit racing if you compare us to the UK or any of the European countries in terms of F1 races.

“The fact is, if you want to attract families and people of different ages you have to provide something for each one. Whether you are three years old or 70 years old there is something to do here and that is the beauty of it.”

That beauty is something seen all over the BIC on race day. From the main grandstand being bathed in red light and lit up by green laser shows to the spectacular desert backdrop, the senses are never dulled.

It has been no easy journey for Bahrain, something Egyptian Al Mahdy is all too aware of having being a part of the Grand Prix since the very beginning – acting as a marshal at the first two races.

Having first come to the country 17 years ago as a pharmacist, his dreams of gaining an entry into the world of motorsport would have seemed as unlikely as Bahrain’s back then. His days at GlaxoSmithKline now in the distant past, Al Mahdy takes immense pride in both his scale up the BIC ladder and the development of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

“I was very honoured to work at the first two Bahrain Grands Prix as a recovery marshal in turn 10. I then shifted to work in a motorsport company in Bahrain for another two years before working as championship organiser and manager with BIC, organising the Lumina Supercars Championship.

“Then in 2010 I was promoted to sporting manager and by the end of 2012 I was appointed commercial director. I’m very proud of coming from the amazing family of Bahraini marshals and I still go them every Grand Prix, sit with them and talk to them. They are my family and that was where I grew up as a motorsport professional.”

Al Mahdy’s move from marshal to commercial chief is a superb tale and his dedication to the cause is obvious after sitting with him for just half an hour.

Having played a key role in increasing awareness of motorsport in the Gulf with the BIC, Al Mahdy is thrilled at the sport’s development.

“When we started in 2004 the region as a whole, not only Bahrain, mainly knew about rally and the speed races but circuit racing was new to the region. Circuit racing was something that the region got in 2004 with Bahrain International Circuit and then the Dubai Autodrome, definitely it was something new.

“It has developed a lot. We can see a lot of other circuits starting in the region. Our brothers in Qatar have done Losail, which has hosted an amazing series of MotoGP races and our brothers in Abu Dhabi as well started their F1 circuit in 2009.

“I can’t see any better proof of development across the region than the investment of actually building world class circuits in the Gulf.”

While the brothership of the Gulf is prosperous, Qatar’s bid for an F1 race has thrown doubt over the future of the Bahrain Grand Prix, with Abu Dhabi signing a new ‘multi-year contract’ beyond 2016 in November last year and Bahrain yet to agree an extension to their deal which runs out at the end of next year.

It is something that Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and First Deputy Premier of Bahrain was optimistic of happening when touring the pits this week.

“It’s possible that you will hear something soon [on Bahrain’s extension],” he was quoted as telling reporters.

“This is the normal process and we’re moving through it. I  believe as the first race in the Middle East we’ve proved the importance of this race and of its followers, and Abu Dhabi has followed us.

“There might also be future races in the area, but Bahrain will always retain its place.”

F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone has hinted at a new deal for Bahrain, but also alluded to interest from Qatar.

“I don’t know at the moment, a lot of people talk to us. It’s possible to have three races close together, depending on where they are. Here, I don’t know, but the Gulf region is so big,” said Ecclestone.

The politics behind a third race in the region is head-spinning as the Qatari federation, the FIA and the competing venues all vie for a place on the calendar and a slice of the pie.

Losail has had success hosting MotoGP in Qatar.

Al Mahdy was forthcoming when speaking about Qatar, but diplomatic in his response. More worried were the media men at the Grand Prix, who seemingly feel the Gulf neighbour as a threat.

Quite simply, Mahdy explained the decision was one for the F1 race organisers to thrash out with the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) chiefs.

One of said bosses, Nasser bin Khalifa al-Attiyah, said as recently as February that a deal was imminent to bring an F1 race to Qatar, either in Losail or at a new night street race in Doha.

The latter would certainly appear to endanger the future of Bahrain, which would be a huge shame for the F1 calendar and fans in the region who have embraced the event. In this year’s case, they have embraced it in record numbers.

For Al Mahdy and the BIC, however, their focus is firmly on making Bahrain the best Grand Prix it can be, while increasing the interest and awareness of motorsport for fans in Bahrain and the Middle East.

“The guys from Abu Dhabi are here today and we had our time discussing with our colleagues there from the commercial side.  We do regular visits with them, we discuss, we talk and we have a fantastic relationship with our peers.

“I can tell you, and this is something very important, the presence of these circuits helped develop the fanbase in the region as well, not just the sport. It was very important for the fans to see more aspects of motorsport.

“Regional motorsport on its own won’t attract teams, sponsors or TV but now with something like the Porsche or Radical championships can go to Bahrain, they can go to Abu Dhabi, they can have a round in Qatar, in Dubai and not forgetting Reem as well in Riyadh which is a very nice circuit and plays a role in Saudi motorsport in Qatar.”

That increased exposure was on full display this weekend as the GT3 Porsche Cup Middle East, played out around the main attraction of the Formula One on all three days.

“In 2004 the weekend as a whole was F1 and GP2 and now we are heavily trying to introduce the regional drivers and giving them the opportunity to show their talents and capabilities in front of crowds, TV audiences and international media.

“We know this has helped them a lot in terms of sponsors and understanding of the sport.”

If this growth is to continue then such a fun, welcoming event, which also provides opportunities for regional drivers and teams to gain valuable attention both inside and outside of MENA, would be a real loss to the F1 calendar.

It is clear from this weekend’s festivities and from speaking to Mahdy, however, that Bahrain won’t go out with a fight.

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Bahrain confident of keeping F1

Barnaby Read 19/04/2015
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Bahrain has hosted an F1 Grand Prix since 2004.

Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and First Deputy Premier of Bahrain is optimistic of extending the Bahrain Grand Prix’s F1 contract beyond 2016, reportedly telling press this weekend: “It’s possible that you will hear something soon.”

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With Bahrain’s F1 current contract coming to an end at the end of this year, interest from Qatar to host an event has sparked rumour that Sakhir could lose its place on the calendar. 

With Abu Dhabi signing a new ‘multi-year contract’ beyond 2016 in November last year and Qatar edging ever closer to bring Formula One to the country, Bahrain seems the most threatened destination.

Prince Salman remained quietly confident of Bahrain’s chances of retaining its F1 status, especially regarding its status as the first race to be hosted in the region.

“This is the normal process and we’re moving through it,” the Crown Prince was quoted as saying. “I believe as the first race in the Middle East we’ve proved the importance of this race and of its followers, and Abu Dhabi has followed us.

“There might also be future races in the area, but Bahrain will always retain its place.”

F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone hinted at a new deal for Bahrain this weekend, but also alluded to interest from Qatar.

“I don’t know at the moment, a lot of people talk to us. It’s possible to have three races close together, depending on where they are. Here, I don’t know, but the Gulf region is so big,” said Ecclestone.

Speaking to Sport360 at the Grand Prix, the Bahrain International Circuit’s commercial director, Sharif Al Mahdy, explained the decision was one for the F1 race organisers to thrash out with the Qatari Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) chiefs.

One of said bosses, Nasser bin Khalifa al-Attiyah, said as recently as February that a deal was imminent to bring an F1 race to Qatar, either in Losail or at a new night street race in Doha.

The latter would certainly appear to endanger the future of Bahrain which is in its eleventh year on the Formula One calendar.

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Alonso: 'Too Many problems' at McLaren

F1i 19/04/2015
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Fernando Alonso admits he is concerned after McLaren "had too many problems" with Jenson Button's car ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

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Button had to stop on track on three out of the four sessions on Friday and Saturday, failing to set a time in qualifying. While Alonso took the MP4-30 through to Q2 for the first time, his main focus is on the reliability issues facing the team and he says McLaren can't think about points before sorting those problems.

"We know the performance is not there but we know how to get there, hopefully soon," Alonso said. "But in terms of reliability we had too many problems, still. With Jenson’s car this weekend, it’s been not so good. So tomorrow, I think we have to try to arrive with both cars at the chequered flag and then whatever position this is, we’ll see how the pace is tomorrow. But we need to finish the race.

"The chequered flag will be the first priority because we’re not in a position at the moment to dream too much, or dream too high. That’s the first thing. It depends. We need to have a little bit of luck if we want to take points. Today, we were the 14th fastest, so it’s difficult to believe tomorrow we’ll be in the first ten. We need some help from the others but I’m happy with everything."

And Alonso admits he was having "some doubts" about this year's McLaren-Honda after dropping out of Q1 in his first two races of the season. Asked if qualifying 14th in Bahrain was a morale boosting result, Alonso replied: "This is the way it is at the moment.

"Everyone in the team is calm, and focused on what we have to do. It’s very easy to panic in this situation when you’re down. But it’s the opposite. The team is hugely motivated because we know we need each other, we are all united. Hopefully we can do two steps in one, so next one will be Q3.

"It’s important. Obviously it’s not the dream come true going to Q2, especially for us because we have higher expectations than going to Q2. We needed the result because we knew we were going in the right direction with the car, the performance but always out of Q1 makes some doubts."

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