Formula One in the Middle East to stay

MANAMA Mon Apr 23, 2012 7:51am IST

Air Gulf flight attendants holds Bahraini, Formula One and FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) flags before the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix at the akhir circuit in Manama April 22, 2012. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Air Gulf flight attendants holds Bahraini, Formula One and FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) flags before the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix at the akhir circuit in Manama April 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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MANAMA (Reuters) - Formula One teams, once they have recovered from a Bahrain Grand Prix run against a backdrop of nightly clashes between police and protesters, have many questions to address in the weeks ahead.

The whole world has seen television images of demonstrators hurling petrol bombs, while riot police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot in protests in and around Bahrain's capital Manama.

Last year's race had to be cancelled as the result of a bloody crackdown on an anti-government uprising and Sunday's faced down many calls for it to face the same fate.

"We were committed to this race and after the race we will make a proper judgement of what happened and come to a conclusion," said Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn.

There may be an inquest of sorts but even if teams were reluctant to come to Bahrain before Sunday's race, there is most unlikely to be any weakening of the glamour sport's ties with the region's rulers.

The race contributes some $40 million a year to Formula One's coffers.

If anything, the ties will only bind tighter with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone saying he was committed to Bahrain "for as long as they want us" and asserting that all publicity was good publicity.

The cash-guzzling sport has always followed the money and it has found investors and partners in oil and gas-rich countries eager to diversify into tourism and technology as well as indulge a passion for fast cars.

"In terms of cash flow, it's by far the biggest concentrating spot in the world. If you were to map it out that way, you wouldn't have enough races here," said Lotus team owner Gerard Lopez.

LARGEST INVESTOR

Lopez's Genii Business Exchange has enlisted retired triple champion Jackie Stewart, who has excellent contacts with the Bahrain royal family, as a partner to build new links with automotive companies and manufacturers.

Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to host a grand prix, back in 2004, and owns 50 percent of the McLaren Group whose team are leading the Formula One championship after four rounds.

Abu Dhabi joined the calendar in 2009 at a Yas Marina circuit that is lavish even by Formula One standards.

That round has become, like Monaco and Singapore, a key fixture for business-to-business deals and one that corporate chiefs and sponsors will always have space for in their executive diaries.

Abu Dhabi is also the largest investor in Mercedes' parent Daimler AG through the emirate's sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments, and the region is a significant market for the German carmaker.

It was Aabar that in 2009 bought the then-world champions Brawn GP with Daimler, turning it into the official works Mercedes team with the Abu Dhabi fund holding 40 percent.

Abu Dhabi accounts for more than half of the United Arab Emirates' economy and is also home to Ferrari World, next to the impressive Yas Marina circuit, which is the world's largest indoor theme park.

Toro Rosso, Red Bull's sister team, has three sponsors owned by Abu Dhabi's government fund International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) - Spanish oil company CEPSA, Swiss-based Falcon Private Bank and Canada's Nova Chemicals.

Williams, whose cars in the 1970s and 80s were sponsored by Saudi Airlines and the Bin Laden family's Albilad, have an agreement with the Qatar science and technology park for research and development.

Bahrain's Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa al-Khalifa sits on the FIA's decision-making 26-man world motor sport council as head of the karting commission.

The Bahrain circuit also has a state-of-the-art outdoor kart track designed to be able to host world championships and develop home-grown talent.

"We see more interest in Middle Eastern countries to host big sporting events, we have Abu Dhabi and Bahrain on the calendar and I'm sure in the future there will probably be more," said Williams' Brazilian driver Bruno Senna.

"This is exciting because it creates the motor racing culture ... these changes take a while and I think we are just getting a bigger fan base in the Middle East which is good for motor racing generally," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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