How the Middle East Became a Key Player in Formula 1
Formula 1 has grown in popularity in many parts of the world over the last few years. The sport has spent heavily on reaching out to new audiences and is now beginning to reap the rewards of this investment. In addition to increased television viewing figures and record-breaking Grand Prix attendance, bookmakers have seen a spike in demand from F1 fans looking to place wagers on races. This latter phenomenon has been helped further by the fact that most bookies offer free bets to new customers to encourage them to sign up and help them explore their platforms for less.
In the last five years or so, the majority of the growth that Formula 1 has enjoyed has been in the United States of America. Thanks to a very well-considered marketing strategy, the sport’s owners have been able to reach out to entirely new demographics, turning F1 from a specialist interest for the most hardcore American petrolheads to a cool movement that people want to be a part of.
It culminated in almost half a million fans cramming into the Circuit of the Americas back in October to witness the United States Grand Prix, breaking the previous record set last season. And, from next season, it will see the creation of a third race in the country in a single year when the Las Vegas GP is run for the first time.
But America wasn’t always the key target for F1. Since the 1990s, the sport has been extending its calendar more and more, visiting new venues almost every year. Many of these new circuits have been in the Middle East, a venue that had previously been almost entirely excluded from Formula 1.
Today, there are three Grands Prix held in the Middle East (four, if you count Azerbaijan), with the region bookending the season with the opening weekend in Bahrain and the finale in Abu Dhabi. And in 2023, these venues will be joined by Qatar, which will be putting on a show in Doha.
So how did this happen?
The history of F1 in the Middle East is actually much longer than you might expect. While the first-ever race in the region took place in 2004, there have been connections between Formula 1 and Arab countries for several decades.
This began in 1977 when Sir Frank Williams penned a deal with Saudi Airlines to paint the company’s logo on his privateer car.
The agreement made history and helped Sir Frank build the championship-winning team that enjoyed success in the seasons that followed.
The first race to take place in the Middle East was the Bahrain Grand Prix which was won by Michael Schumacher on his way to his record seventh world title.
There were concerns about the venue, most notably its remote location, sand getting into the cars, and security. But these were quickly forgotten about when the Sakhir circuit began to deliver exciting racing.
Turkey and Turn 8
Turkey quickly followed and the Turkish Grand Prix’s legendary multi-apex turn 8 helped to make the circuit a firm favourite among drivers and fans alike.
The race remained on the calendar until 2011 before a disagreement over finances meant that it lost its spot. For the region, though, this didn’t matter as F1 had already made itself at home.
Abu Dhabi: Premium Facilities, Premium Spot
Then came Abu Dhabi, another Middle Eastern country with big pockets to spend on world-class facilities.
The circuit’s owners paid Formula 1 a premium to be able to host the final Grand Prix of the season from 2009, a spot it has held for almost every season since.
The Hermann Tilke design has been criticised by many fans for not promoting overtaking, but changes for the 2021 season appear to have fixed these issues.
Coming Full Circle
In 2021, Saudi Arabia made its debut on the Formula 1 calendar, bringing with it huge investment from Aramco which paid to have its logos on the sides of the circuit at every race.
This completed a full circle of the country’s involvement in F1 and shows just how much of a key player the Middle East has become in the sport.
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