Hamilton cruises to Bahrain GP win

Barnaby Read 19/04/2015
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Speeding up: Lewis Hamilton extends drivers’ championship lead to 27 points.

SAKHIR, Bahrain — Lewis Hamilton claimed his third F1 win of the season in convincing fashion during a dramatic Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC).

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Nico Rosberg was unable to make it a Mercedes one-two after going wide late on and allowing Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to clinch second and extend his F1 podium record in Bahrain with a seventh top-three finish.

Sebastian Vettel, who showed excellent pace all weekend had to settle for fifth after Williams’ Valtteri Bottas surprisingly secured fourth to upset the Ferrari-Mercedes stronghold at the top.

It was Hamilton’s second straight win in Bahrain and by the time the firerworks rumbled around the BIC and brought to life the night sky, the Brit had extended his lead at the top of the drivers’ championship to 27 points ahead of Rosberg.

Vettel drops down to third with 65 points, one back from Rosberg and 28 off of Hamilton.

The race was forced into a restart after Felipe Massa’s Williams failed to get off the grid and ended up starting the race from the pit lane.

A messy start to proceedings continued as sparks flew from a number of cars as the heavy braking needed to combat the Bahrain track continued to take its toll.

The drama didn’t stop there as Raikkonen continued Ferrari’s promising weekend by edging Rosberg at the first turn to move into third behind teammate Vettel and leader Hamilton, much to the delight of his Ferrari team who were seen punching the air and roaring in appreciation for the move.

A fascinating battle unfolded between Raikkonen and Rosberg with the pair clashing and going wheel to wheel on lap 4, drawing sharp intakes of breath from the crowd.

Rosberg was then hot on the tail of Vettel and received orders for “a little more break management before attacking.”

The German did just that and moved into second with an impeccable take on the inside on lap 10.

The top four all exchanged places as they went into the pits before the 20 lap mark where normal service was resumed with Hamilton leading Rosberg and the Ferraris playing catch up.

Sixteen laps later and Vettel and Rosberg were at it again, this time the Ferrari going wide and coming off the track to allow Rosberg to get his nose back in front once more.

The weekend had been one of huge promise for Ferrari as their long-run pace continued to serve as a reminder to Mercedes that they were genuine contenders this season.

Both Ferraris pushed Hamilton and Rosberg throughout each stage of practice and qualifying, resulting in Mercedes working long into the night on Saturday in order to stave off their rivals’ threat.

Later on in proceedings it was Bottas whose superb defensive drive kept Vettel at bay that caught many off guard as the Williams car made one pit fewer than Vettel’s.

Eventually, however, Mercedes showed their superiority by claiming victory.

After a traumatic run in qualifying, Jenson Button was due to start 20th on the grid but his team had to pull his car from the grid after “an issue originating from his earlier electrical problems.” Team-mate Fernando Alonso managed to get his McLaren up to 14th on the grid after showing some good pace on Saturday but missed out on the points, ending up in eleventh place.

Carlos Sainz’s Red Bull was the second car to bow out of proceedings on the 31st lap and Max Verstappen had also retired five laps later.

Felipe Nasr was the sole Arab representative and his support was evident with a number of fans draped in Sauber colours to cheer on the ‘home favourite’ who crossed the line in 12th.

The action off the track was once again full of life as a steady stream of foot traffic took to the Bahrain International Circuit throughout the day.

Excitement built steadily until fever pitch was reached in time for the 6pm (AST) start, with the GP2 and Porsche GT3 Cup Middle East championships being played out to ever increasing crowds.

In the GP2 sprint it was Campos Racing’s Rio Haryanto who claimed victory three seconds clear of McLaren test driver Stoffel Vandoorne in second and Nathanaël Berthon in third.

Elsewhere, in the Porsche GT3 Cup, Clemens Schmid claimed overall victory of the sixth season of the competition, beating SkyDive Dubai Falcons’ Saeed Al Mehairi in second and Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum in third. The team from Dubai claimed the team championship in the process.

While the dusk settled on the Porsche championship, the sparks are certain to continue to fly long into the Bahrain night as Formula One’s helter skelter start to the season joyfully divides fans, teammates and rivals in 2015.

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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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