By Harry Finlayson
The Middle East has become a favoured home for sports-loving, sun-starved winter tourists. From the golf courses, tennis courts and racecourses of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, to the wadis and beaches of Oman, millions of Europeans flock to the region between October and April.
With far more history than the newly-built oases of its GCC neighbours, Bahrain may be less well-advertised but, for motorsports lovers, is indubitably the place to be, if what you’re after is a heady mix of sun, beaches, fast cars and top restaurants.
In February, Paddock magazine headed out to Manama to take in F1’s second official Testing session, along with all the other delights that the island kingdom has to offer.
Landing at the smart international airport on the Muharraq peninsula after a 6 hour flight from Heathrow, it was only a 15 minute drive into the centre of town – or should have been, had our SatNav not decided to take us on a last-minute detour. But those momentary frustrations were forgotten once we’d checked into the InterContinental, which would be our base for the first two nights of our stay.
Having been subjected to a major refurbishment since I was last there a few years ago, the hotel is now a genuine 5 star, with an extensive Spa, squash courts and two swimming pools – one, by the health club, for those who like to get a few laps under their belt at the start of the day, and another, more relaxed affair with a poolside restaurant.
It’s only fair to mention, in the Bahrain International Circuit’s favour, that F1 isn’t the whole story.
It was to the latter that we repaired for lunch, and to start soaking in the rays – it was a lovely, dry 23-25 degrees throughout our stay, and coming out of the English winter the clear blue skies were, to say the least, a welcome sight. It put us in a good enough mood to laugh off the fact that, despite having two attentive waiters assigned to our table, we were brought entirely different food to that which we had ordered.
In the evening, we got togged up to hit the town. And there is actually a town: unlike the other, newer parts of the Middle East, Manama has some atmospheric parts which you can walk around. And, being a secular country (albeit with a Muslim majority), there are plenty of bars, restaurants and nightclubs, meaning that it is not only in hotels where you can get a drink (hence the kingdom’s huge popularity with Saudi visitors).
Our destination was The Meat Company, a top-drawer steakhouse with a roof-top bar-cum-club. Suffice to say that, for this carnivore, it exceeded expectations, going beyond the standard fare into many different ways of cooking and presenting red meat. It was a Monday evening, so fairly quiet in the bar, but at the tail-end of motor-racing weeks those in the know tell me that it becomes fairly lively, to say the least, and the in-house DJ – despite the sparse audience on our visit – was certainly geared up for those who want a big night out.
The next day, we decided to head out onto the water, hiring a speedboat to see some of the coastline. The boat was speedy, the driver cheerful and the weather lovely, but we definitely took off from the wrong location. Instead of speeding straight down Bahrain’s lovely east coast – past little islands and beaches – we spent our first hour sightseeing the country’s off-shore oil industry! Tip from the top: take a boat which is already ON the east coast, though the array of super-yachts in the Marina our boat was housed in suggested that plenty of Bahrainis see things differently. As our speedboat made its’ way back, though, as the sun set, we did get to see the local fishing fleet meandering its way back to port – a picturesque combination of ancient and modern, as traditional fishing boats meandered their way past hulking oil refineries, to give a visual sense of Bahrain’s past and present.
Having rested up, and got sufficient sun to rid ourselves of our pasty winter sheen, it was time to head south down the island for the motor-sports part of our five day trip. The Bahrain International Circuit, founded in 2004 and sign-posted from roads throughout the country, styles itself ‘the home of motorsports in the Middle East’ and, as we were to find out, that is no idle boast.
Sofitel have built a new luxury beachfront resort hotel just 3 miles from the track, and we decanted our luggage there, before driving straight on to the track, where it was the first day of F1 Testing. Note to fellow traffic-loathing F1 fans: the Sofitel’s sheer convenience was a huge bonus, as the main Manama hotels are at least 30 minutes’ drive away, and can be more during F1 week.
For those who have not attended Testing before, it is a completely different experience than a Grand Prix. Far from the usual FOM-manned barriers and checkpoints everywhere, the atmosphere (outside the intense cauldron of the pit garages, anyway) is relaxed, friendly and open. It may have been even a little relaxed inside the garages, had so many teams not been suffering with technical issues relating to the new regulations.
Standing in the pit-lane that first morning, the first shock was just how much quieter the noise was. The primeval scream we all know and have loved had gone, to be replaced by a sound more associated with GP2 or Touring Cars. The second shock was to hear many of the cars’ engines more or less blowing up as they left the pit-lane, only to be towed back in moments later. During our whole visit, Red Bull cars were to manage only a handful of laps.
Still, the Mercedes, Force India’s and Ferraris were out and running, so I headed up around the circuit with my camera to see just how close to the action I could get. The answer was: extremely close! Provided you stayed behind the crash barriers, you could get as close to the cars as you wanted, meaning that, at slow corners, you were sometimes no more than 10 metres away from an F1 driver’s visor, just like the Grands Prix of the 1960s and 70s.
Another interesting find was the sheer scale of the BIC’s new floodlighting – this year’s race will be Bahrain’s first night race, and the authorities have left nothing to chance with ensuring that the entire track will be bathed in light, no matter how dark the surrounding desert. When they switched the lighting on the following evening at 7 pm local time, the effect was spectacular – as other F1 fans will see in early April.
After a few hours at the track, we headed back to Sofitel to catch the last of the afternoon warmth, and to have a few sundowners on the beach. It was here that it struck me just how uncluttered and unspoilt large parts of Bahrain is, compared to some of its neighbouring countries. Looking out across a mill-pond calm sea into a seemingly endless horizon, it was hard to believe that F1’s hubbub takes place only a few minutes away.
The Zallaq Sofitel is a terrific holiday spot: it manages the trick of both being fairly large, but also seeming quite cosy and secluded when you are in various different parts of the property. The rooms have glorious sea-facing balconies. And the food, across all the five different restaurants, is consistently excellent. From the Italian – where, bizarrely, we were entertained by two ageing Italian opera stars and the world’s pizza dough acrobatic champion (don’t ask) – to the Arab restaurant, where wave after wave of Mezze arrived till we had to beg the waiter to stop bringing more, to the fish restaurant on a pier looking out to sea where mountains of fresh fish arrived every day, the standard and the service was impeccable.
The following morning, we headed back to the track, but this time to participate, rather than merely spectate. No, not on the main BIC circuit, but on its adjoining state-of-the-art Karting track, the venue for the world junior Karting championship every November. With its contours, sweeping turns and tight hairpins, this is as close to a full circuit as any Karting track is ever going to get. It was a breathless, but brilliant 30 minutes, which we thoroughly enjoyed. The circuit is open to all visitors, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, even to those who have never tried karting before. There is also a top-class 4×4 Off-Roading area, which we did not have time to try out, but which comes highly-recommended by those who have. Put the three together – F1 racing; Karting and Off-Roading – in one location, and it’s a hard combination to beat for a petrol-head on holiday.
More Testing followed, and we wandered around the BIC, bumping into various F1 personnel, not to mention various members of the Bahraini royal family, who have always – in my experience – been tremendously hospitable and friendly. Several of them race touring cars themselves, so they just love passing the time of day with other motorsports fanatics. Having Testing back in the kingdom is clearly a big feather in their cap, after the troubles of 2011, and they are grateful for the world motorsports fraternity staying loyal when various siren voices elsewhere were urging the FIA to abandon Bahrain.
It’s only fair to mention, in the Bahrain International Circuit’s favour, that F1 isn’t the whole story, either. Apart from the aforementioned Karting championships, the BIC also hosts a Le Mans series World Endurance Championship race, in November, Porsche SuperCup as well as the full range of regional motorsports events and weekly Drag Racing along a special floodlit strip. Far from being the White Elephant that some predicted when it was built 10 years ago, the track may well be the world’s busiest: is chief executive, Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, told me that in the first four months of 2014 there are only 3 days when the BIC is not being used.
And, as such, it is destined, in my belief, to gradually become one of the great motorsports destinations. History takes time to build – the BIC does not yet have the illustrious past of Silverstone, Monza or Sao Paolo – but history is already happening all around it. Just the week after we left, it was announced that the first turn is going to be re-named Schumacher Corner, in honour of the great former champion who helped design the track and won around it.
Indeed, the list of former Bahrain GP winners is already a Who’s Who of recent F1 history: from Schumacher to Button to Alonso to Vettel. And, just by the now famous Sakhir Tower, there is a tree planted almost 10 years ago by the winner of a race for up-and-coming young drivers. His name? Lewis Hamilton. A decade on, given how the Mercedes cars had been going in Testing, who would bet against Lewis adding his name to the list of those who have topped the Bahrain podium this year?
Eventually, after one last phenomenal dinner of fresh sardines and seabass, we dragged ourselves away from the beaches, the supercars, the sundowners and the sun and headed back to London, where – predictably enough – it was grey, chilly and raining steadily, as we entered our first traffic jam on the M4. A reminder, if any were needed, of the joys we had left behind. It won’t be long before I’m heading back for a longer trip.