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Bahrain: Racing on oil
by Anuj Bang, India
The best place to run fuel guzzling racing cars has to be Bahrain – the country where it all started. Bahrain, popularly known as ‘The Pearl of the Gulf’, is the place where the first oil well in the Persian Gulf was started in 1932. Now, oil is a synonym to the Gulf. Oil found its right match when the first ever Formula 1 race in the Gulf was hosted in Bahrain in 2004. It usually hosts race in the hot month of April. Other than F1, Bahrain is a popular weekend getaway for the Arab world as liquor is legal and the country is very liberal. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are just separated by a 22 km. long causeway.
Being a Formula 1 buff, it was my childhood dream to watch a F1 race up close. Well, watching F1 live is not cheap by any means. Everything is expensive – tickets, travel etc. Residing in India, the nearest race I could catch was Bahrain, just 3 hours flying from Mumbai. About 150,000 F1 enthusiasts visit the Bahrain race every year. It is very much recommended to book your entire itinerary well in advance. I was lucky; the global financial crunch too had its toll on F1. The 3-day weekend race ticket I bought cost me just US$150. It is way cheap considering the usual F1 ticket prices.
The Gulf Air flight timings are very convenient from India. It reaches early morning and departs at mid-night. This saves 2 nights at the hotel. It really is a blessing as the hotels during F1 period run at a premium and cost 3 times more than normal days. I had booked the Days Inn Manama hotel, a very comfortable and friendly hotel next to the Diplomat area. My room on the 10th floor offered good views over the Marina. Even though in a popular location, it was nightmare finding this hotel as it had recently changed its name from the Marine Towers Hotel and the locals (including the taxi guys) had no clue if the Days Inn even existed! Language made that even more horrifying. English is very limited. After Arabic, Hindi is the most widely spoken language.
There are hardly any hotels near the Sakhir F1 circuit, which is about 30 km. from the Manama center. The worst part about Bahrain is its public transport. There are very limited options to move around. No wonder I saw so many car hire booths around the city! However, if you visit during the F1 period, there are loads of complimentary AC buses (really a welcome as the mercury rises well over 40 degrees Celsius in April) running between select hotels in Manama, the airport and the circuit.
The F1 fever grips you as soon as you land in Bahrain. Fancy banners and chequered flags are to be found everywhere – from airport to the streets. You can feel that when you take the free bus directly from the airport to the circuit, which takes about 45 minutes. En-route you can see the Bahrain WTC – the first building in the world to incorporate wind turbines in its design, the famous twin towers of Bahrain Financial Harbor, the iconic roundabouts and of course the desert, doted with date palms. I did not get the time to shop, but there are some huge malls and souks too along the way. Spare some time to buy the local Bahraini Halwa – a jelly sweet filled with rich dry fruits.
The sound of the F1 V8 engines greets you once at the Bahrain International Circuit. There are various stands from which you could choose to watch the race. I chose the ‘Victory 2’ stand ticket, well that was the cheapest, but to my surprise it was the best choice! On Friday you have the freedom to walk about in any stand of your choice. I experienced them all. For me the ‘Victory 2’ stand has to be the best. It is strategically located on the last corner of the track leading to the start-finish straight. You can have a look at your favorite car zooming down the straights, tackling a bend and entering the pits. Due to the height of the stand, almost half the circuit is visible – can’t ask for more!
F1 is not the only race that takes place during the weekend. It is accompanied by- GP2, Speedcar Series, Porsche Super Cup, Cheverly Supercar and drag racing, all included in the ticket price! There is much more action off the track at the Formula 1 Village, located just behind the Main Stand. It is a complete fan fare. Music, dance, kebabs, hookah and non-stop performances by well-known artists from round the globe. For die-hard fans there are memorabilia stores set up by most of the teams. I was lucky to view the personal exhibition put on by Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial promoter of F1. On display for the first time were 23 of the best racing cars right since 1927. I also witnessed the Guinness world record set by David Merlini, for being 21.29 minutes under water, just before the start of the race. To top it all, there is a Dhow – an Arab sailing boat, placed right at the entrance of the village, where all the drivers have an autograph session. It is not easy to get the autographs though. I had to queue for about 2 hours in blistering heat to get signatures of about six drivers! If I wanted more, it would mean missing action on the track. Tough choice to make!
The three-day event passed by with the same speed as the F1 cars. Time to head back home. Well there was still a surprise in store; the winner of the GP2 race, Luiz Razia was next to me at the airport-waiting lounge!
And all that for US$150!
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