Arabian Nights

The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) celebrates its Formula One 10-year hosting anniversary in April by switching to a night race. Elisha Chauhan finds out the rationale and commercial implications.

After years of planning, this year the BIC will host a night grand prix, installing almost 500 lights to do so at a cost of $40 million.

The move was made by the small island nation to show its commitment to Formula One ahead of its grand prix’s 10th anniversary on the calendar, excluding 2011 where the race was cancelled due to civil unrest.

“We have been considering running a night race for quite some time,” BIC chief executive and heir to the Bahraini thrown, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, told SportBusiness International. “We’re always looking to improve the facilities of the track, and with Singapore and Abu Dhabi hosting night races in Formula One, we wanted to do the same.

“At 10 years, it’s a moment to reflect on your investment in the sport, and make sure you can commit to it for the next 10 years. A project like hosting a night race shows the long-term investment of Bahrain and the BIC into Formula One. We’re very proud of that.

“We have had a positive effect on Formula One, as other countries in the region like Abu Dhabi are also hosting Formula One races now. We’ve also grown our investment within Formula One teams, such as McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes. I hope that is recognised by the decision-makers and stakeholders of Formula One.”

Though holding a night race may affect race performance – as it is more difficult to heat tyres at lower track temperatures, meaning potentially less overtaking – the FIA (International Motor Sport Federation) was fully supportive of Bahrain’s decision to shift to a night race, notably due to the later race start fitting perfectly into European primetime TV schedules.

With 2012 and 2013 Bahrain grands prix both attracting around 28,000 raceday spectators at the 65,000-capacity venue, Sheikh Salman thinks the night race will boost local attendance. Particularly because Saudi weekends fall on Friday and Saturday, meaning Bahrainis are at work and school during Sunday’s race.

“We found that students would be out of school, and people would just finish work and could come straight to the event if it were held in the evening. Bahraini society also tends to be outgoing at night, as the weather is too hot during the day. The sunset race will therefore bring the highest attendance in Bahrain grand prix history,” he says.

“It also solves a lot of problems in terms of extending our calendar throughout the year, especially in the hotter months of May and June. Like any new element to a venue, there will be excitement from other motor sport events that want to run a night race too, especially because they want to associate with something like Formula One.

“From a commercial perspective, hosting a night race has definitely grown our business. We have begun to grow a motor sport culture here. A lot of people don’t realise how long it takes to grow a motor sport culture in a region that has never had racing circuits. We take it for granted in Europe where tracks have been around for 100 years but, at the BIC, we’re just reaching 10 years.”

Sheikh Salman also foresees more car manufacturer events and product launches at the BIC, which can now use the facility throughout the whole day.

“The Saudi market has a population of 27 million around 20 minutes away from the track, and a $1.5 trillion industry to do business with,” he adds. “Our job is to create bridges for them at networking events, and that has been already working on some levels. We’re hoping to continue that.”

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