This weekend the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain marks a decade as part of the sport of Formula One and it has named a corner after seven times world champion Michael Schumacher, who remains in a coma after a ski accident.
Following a civil conflict that led to the race being abandoned in 2011, and which is still in the background to the event each year, the Middle East’s first F1 venue this weekend stages its 10th grand prix and to raise the bar and ring the changes, it is hosting its first night race.
Here, Shaikh Salman, the CEO of Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit, speaks to JAonF1 about his thoughts on his country’s decade in F1 and the reasons behind the decision to name turn one after Schumacher.
Shaikh Salman, you’re celebrating 10 years of the Bahrain Grand Prix, it has not been without its difficulties and controversy, but how do you feel looking back over the decade?
Well we are very excited. When we started out in 2004 I remember we built the track in 496 days. The whole focus was on bringing F1 to Bahrain mainly for the purpose of putting Bahrain on the map. We’re passionate about the sport, we have had a Motor Federation since 1952 and it was a good continuation to have that type of sport, but mainly [it was about] picking a large sporting event to put Bahrain on the map. In 2004 I was looking at the pictures of what our vending area looked like and the what paddock looked like, and it was basic. We had no palm trees in the paddock, I think we had maybe 10 tents and now, looking at the pictures around us, we have come a long way. Today we celebrate 10 years, yes it’s a milestone, but we also celebrate the first night race.
The night race is a first time for us, so I go back to that 2004 picture and [this is the same] this is where we are starting; every year we will have to learn and improve and know how it works for us. It’s not right to approach it now, with a few years under our belt, and say “everything will be right in the first year”, especially for the night element. So we are learning there, there are a lot of question marks – is the effect lighting correct? – and that for us is exciting, it’s always interesting. There’s always so many more possibilities now because of light.
For 10 years, it has been a great experience, it’s been fantastic for us in terms of how the human capital, how we as Bahrainis have managed to go from how nobody knew what we do, to actually taking care of them from the moment they land – we are trying to do that, and it shows that this is the whole point of the event.
There is a nice touch that everyone in the Formula One community and fans around the world appreciate, which is naming Turn One after Michael Schumacher. Tell us a little bit about that.
When we started out in 2004, if I could choose one name that everyone started picking up, it was Michael Schumacher. If you go in to town and say his name then everyone knows him. He also had an input on the first corner when we were designing it, where he had an impact of making it tighter and more challenging because that’s where everything happens. There is a lot that he added and in our history he has been the number one driver, so for us that was the reason to do it – he has helped build the culture of Formula One in this region by having his name associated with the red of Ferrari and Bahrain. We’ve always had the idea of naming corners, it is where we wanted to go. Michael is the one that was chosen and we are very honoured and happy with the reaction from his family.
Formula One has changed fundamentally this year, the cars look the same from the outside but they sound very different and the technology under the bonnet is extremely different. As a promoter what is your take, so far, on Formula One 2014?
I think the interesting thing and the exciting thing for me is that I have seen the drivers struggle when they are driving the car and that is always good to see. As a venue, we are also interested that the entertainment side and the action is there. More action and more spins create better action and that’s the most important thing.
On the sound, we have to wait and see. We have just had pre-season testing and personally for me I have seen how that personal reaction has changed from the first day of testing to the last. I think there are positives and negatives, I’m sitting on the fence to see how it goes to be honest.
I cannot speak to you without talking about the civil unrest and the security situation. The last few years here have been very tight security, noticeable for people coming from outside, but what is the situation now? Do you have any concerns?
No there are no concerns. For us it is a round of the Formula One World Championship and so security measures for the event must be monitored but it is no different from any other event and I have no concerns on security.
After a decade are you happy to continue with Formula One? Is it something you want to retain in Bahrain for as long as you can?
Yes. For us it is always something that we want to build and I hope the investment in the lighting project shows that commitment to the sport, and that we want to build the right type of racing and the right type of atmosphere, win which people can enjoy themselves. I think it opens up a new area, where we can expand our race, both on-track and off the track. It makes more sense because people are off work and off school so it improves our attendance and opens up a multi-approach solution.