Long Read: The Unforgettable Desert Magic Of Bahrain Grand Prix

Apr 01 - by Louis Kalinga for SportPesa News

SportPesa News was part of the second Formula 1 leg of the season that concluded on Sunday and writer Louis Kalinga was in the Gulg and here is a blow by blow account of the spectacle

Sergio Perez of SportPesa Racing Point F1 Team in action during 2019 Formula 1 FIA world championship, Bahrain Grand Prix, at Sakhir from March 29 to 31. PHOTO/AFP

  • F1 machines are the fastest regulated road racing cars on the planet and the modifications they undergo in order to be ready for competition is insane to say the least and the apex of automotive engineering
  • The only moving parts of the Formula 1 team that travel through air are the precious cars that are either flown to team headquarters or destination of the next race, depending on what suits the outfit concerned
  • The traditional podium champagne splash and the trophy presentation gave way to the entertainment programme of the night as Bahrain threw a party fit for kings to crown another successful hosting of its grand prix

MANAMA, Bahrain- There is nothing that beats the thrill of being part of the premier racing competition that is Formula 1 for any motor sport fan. 

Since its inception in 1950, the Federation Internationale de Automobile (FIA)-owned championship has grown to become the most watched and expensive annual motor sport competition with 21 circuits in as many cities around the globe.

F1 machines are the fastest regulated road racing cars on the planet and the modifications they undergo in order to be ready for competition is insane to say the least and the apex of automotive engineering.

From Juan Manuel Fangio (Argentina), Alain Prost (France), Jim Clark (Great Britain), Niki Lauda (Austria), Sir Jackie Stewart (Great Britain) and arguably the greatest of all time, Aryton Senna (Brazil) to modern legends such record titleholder, Michael Schumacher (Germany), Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) and Sebastian Vettel (Germany), Formula 1 has given its share to global sporting icons in the seven decades it has been existence.

MUST READ: Perez Scores For SportPesa Racing, Hamilton In Lucky Bahrain Win 

Last weekend, all eyes in the motor sport world and beyond were fixed on the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, the second event of the 2019 calendar that unfolded at the immaculate Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) in Sakhir, a venue that made history in 2004 when it hosted the first ever Formula 1 leg in the Middle East.

So much drama unfolded from the first open practise to the chequered flag on Sunday evening where champion Lewis Hamilton pounced with seven laps to go to grab an unlikely victory, leading his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to the 1-2.

Watching Formula 1 on television has been a thrill for hundreds of millions for years- hence the astonishing numbers the sport commands on the silver screen- but experiencing a grand prix in real life should be in everyone's bucket list.

Landmark partnership

SportPesa News was part of 2019 Bahrain GP for the first time ever following the landmark partnership the parent technology and entertainment company entered with the outfit now known as the SportPesa Racing Point Formula 1 Team at the start of the season which has captivated fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

For starters, Bahrain- a desert island located in the Persian Gulf with Manama its capital- uses its grand prix as one of its biggest sports tourism attraction and nothing is spared to ensure the 70,000-seater BIC is packed to its seams and beyond for what is an unforgettable experience.

MUST READ: SportPesa Racing Point Duo Perez, Stroll To Thrill Kenya On Madaraka Day

Once a year, there is the option of a Formula 1 eVisa which is granted in 72 hours or less, easing the usual travel complications and making the event easily accessible for all interested in travelling to its showpiece sporting extravaganza.

After a four-hour flight to Dubai from the Kenyan capital Nairobi for this reporter who got the privilege of their first taste of Formula 1, a short transit period was followed by an hour-long flight to the Bahrain International Airport.

This is a small well-knit property and one instantly knows what they are here for as the Gulf Air F1 branded planes are parked in almost every corner of the travel hub.

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (4th-R, first placed), Mercedes' Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas (3rd-R, second placed) and the Mercedes team pose for a family picture after the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit in the desert south of the Bahraini capital Manama, on March 31, 2019. PHOTO/AFP


Gulf Air is the airline carrier of the kingdom and its headquarters are located in Muharraq, adjacent to the airport and are the title partners of only the second grand prix that is run at night. Singapore is the other.

The drive from the airport to the city centre was filled by ongoing mega construction projects on bare land for approximately a three-kilometre stretch that open up to imposing and well-designed buildings either side of the level and unwrinkled super highway.

MUST READ: Inter Boss Blasts Striker Icardi: Messi Or Ronaldo Make A Difference, Not You!

Despite being in the Gulf, the time zone is the same as local time (+3GMT) and the weather was only one or two degrees above the conditions in Nairobi making Manama a habitable metropolis for the touring Kenyans.

Knowing all too well that this is the showcase and pride of a kingdom, visitors for the Bahrain Grand Prix are accorded a red carpet and warm welcome regardless of their religious or race backgrounds.

With breathtaking sights and pieces of architectural genius littered across this oil-rich state that Kenyans are more familiar with for naturalising local distance runners, the BIC itself is a wonder to behold when you set your eyes on it for the first time.

Once on the highway, the iconic facility opened in 2004 as an initiative by Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and is located half an hour's drive on a smooth freeway filled with hotels, malls and upcoming developments on either side of the road.

Driven to the facility by a Dutch driver, SportPesa News were the greeted by the captivating spectacle of Bahraini and chequered flags that symbolised Formula 1 was in town.

MUST READ: Manchester United Lose Club Director Sawhney To Cricket

Speed demons

It was last Thursday (March 28) a day according to tradition, is dedicated to local and international media covering the event but that did not stop a huge crowd from showing up just to be close to their favourite racing stars.

The paddock, which is a set area for the teams to set up their garages and living quarters for the weekend is the most expensive place to access due to the restrictions in place to safeguard the cars and equipment worth hundreds of millions of US Dollars.

Apart from the speed demons, the paddock is also a runway of the global rich and famous from sport, business and entertainment and in Bahrain, former England and Manchester United FC football legend David Beckham, was among the star attractions.

The highlight of the day for this reporter and fellow SportPesa colleagues from Kenya was a tour of the Racing Point Team (formerly Force India) offering a tour of their garage for the once in a lifetime chance of meeting all the people behind the success of the team.

MUST READ: Wounded Warriors Rout Hornets, Mavericks Knock Oklahoma City Off 

With only two cars to take care of, with Sergio Perez (Mexico) and Lance Stroll (Canada) on the cockpit as the main drivers, one is simply blown away by the sheer fact it takes over 80 people to maintain the outfit. 

To imagine that this crew and their equipment will travel to 21 stops this season around the world to honour their obligations to the championships illustrates why Formula 1 is such an expensive affair.

For dominant and established teams like archrivals Mercedes or Ferrari, their entourage boast of up to 200 people- each with a critical role to play in ensuring they sustain their established tradition as the teams to beat in this sport.

From drivers to the mechanics- who are the best in the automotive world business- to the paddock waiters, logistics department staff, tyre specialists, and project coordinators, every single member of the team is integral to the getting their cars ready to start on the grid and keep going to the end.

MUST READ: Liverpool Back On Top, Late Own Goal Secures Win Over Tottenham

These ant-like workers dismantle all the carefully constructed garages once a race is over and get to do it all over again in the next race.

From the garage scaffolding, floors, tyre racks and pumps to the tables and chairs in their paddock, everything is packed and shipped to the next grand prix with the next stop after Bahrain in China (April 17).

“It takes so much more than people see or even imagine. The level of dedication from everyone involved is very crucial.

Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc rests prior to the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit in the desert south of the Bahraini capital Manama, on March 31, 2019. PHOTO/AFP

"This is more than a job to us, we have a passion for the sport and just being able to go to sleep knowing that we had a part to play in the team’s success is good enough,” Brian who is part of SportPesa Racing marketing team revealed.

Precious cars

The only moving parts of the Formula 1 team that travel through air are the precious cars that are either flown to team headquarters or destination of the next race, depending on what suits the outfit concerned.

MUST READ: Miami Open Final: Federer Beats Isner For 101st Title

When you talk about tyres, a jaw-dropping 160 are required for every team to go through the weekend. From the first practice session on Friday (March 29) through to Sunday, most if not all of these tyres are exhausted.

After testing, drivers enter the qualifying rounds in what is a nightmare to those left in the paddock since anything from tyre blowouts to engine failures could happen with Milan-based multi-national Pirelli the only entity permitted to supply Formula 1 tyres.

The allure of Formula 1 means that even during practice, the stands are crowded with fans from all over the world who just want to get a glimpse of their individual teams besides having a feel of how race day will unfold.

“I go for at least 10 races a year and I have never just come for the main event. I need to watch from practice until the checkered flag is raised on Sunday.

“It isn’t the full F1 experience for me if I miss out on even one day,” Carl Walters, a British national and die-hard Hamilton fan told SportPesa News.

MUST READ: Chelsea Rising: Loftus-Cheek Sinks Cardiff's Hearts 

Saturday is a whole other story. Hundreds of cars line up the parking lot as mammoth crowds gather to soak in the qualifying rounds that determine the starting places on the grid.

All VIP pass holders and those with access to the paddocks are ferried from the car park to their vantage points and the rest have to walk, though the stroll is filled with plenty of activities and fun distractions along the way.

There is a designated area for such activities called the fan zone, which even hosts concerts in the evenings. This year internationally renowned Electronic Dance Music deejays Martin Garrix and Kygo were the headline acts.

Other than music, there are hundreds of food stalls, merry-go-rounds and kids activities, shops selling F1 merchandise, cars on display, women on stilts as well as tiny music bands providing an electric atmosphere to match the crazy speeds the cars reach.

“I love this event because it offers something for everyone to do when there isn’t any action on the track. I come with my kids and they have so much fun every year,” local Khaled Bilat shared.'

MUST READ: Benzema Strikes Late To Give Real Madrid Win Over Huesca

For the race fanatics who are not only into the top level of motor sport’s flagship competition the lower tier Formula 2 provides another dose to their addiction.

They light up the track sort of as a curtain raiser for the big boys. Sensations such as son of legendary Schumacher, Mick displayed their talent and skill for the fans in attendance before it got down to serious business with the Formula 1 qualifiers.

Leclerc shocker

This year was more special as Ferrari new boy, Charles Leclerc shocked the entire world when he set a new lap record to grab pole for Bahrain ahead of his teammate and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel with Hamilton in third.

The 21-year-old became the second youngest pole-sitter and an even greater statistic is that this was only the second race of his embryonic Ferrari career having first competed in Melbourne a fortnight ago.

SportPesa Racing Point F1 Team pair, Sergio Perez (Mexico)and Lance Stroll during 2019 Formula 1 FIA world championship, Bahrain Grand Prix, at Sakhir from March 29 to 31. PHOTO/AFP

Come Sunday. Race day.

From as early as 10am, eight hours before the cars were flagged off, swarms of people started headed down to the circuit in anticipation for the climax of what was developing to be a memorable weekend.

The weather, which had been hot throughout the weekend, drastically changed and clouds gathered in the sky and unbearable wind began to blow across the Middle Eastern island.

MUST READ: Huddersfield Relegated, Man United Clip Watford As Saints Down Burnley

There were whispers about there being rain, which would have been the first wet Bahrain GP, but that was not to be as the skies held but the drivers had to battle punishing winds.

An hour before the race, the chosen few- either through paying through the nose or invited important guest- get the opportunity to have a pit-lane walk right in front of all the garages and see as the mechanics put the final touches on their cars.

If one is lucky, they can maybe get a glimpse of a driver pacing up and down to relieve the tension before getting into their cars.

A formation lap follows as the drivers go round the track in the order of their starting positions before finally lining up on the grid and rev their engines. Then the moment everyone has been waiting for arrives, the green light that starts them off.

That invited deafening noise from the crowd- an euphoric cheer that borders on madness- each rooting for their favourite driver in the hope that they can at least finish among the points if not emerge the winner on the day.

MUST READ: Table-Topping Gor Toss Sharks To The Tank, Chemelil Stun Tusker

With 20 starters and only 10 scoring positions, the sheer brutality of Formula 1 was evident for all to see, with Vettel racing off the blocks to zoom past his Ferrari teammate to take the lead at the first corner in a move that reminded everyone why he has won the title four times.

Displaying the searing pace that had placed the Red Arrows on top on Friday and Saturday, the young Frenchman Leclerc chased down his senior partner and blasted past him in the fifth lap but the dreams of a Ferrari 1-2 unfolded in the most spectacular manner.

Hamilton, working his way from the back, reeled his arch-rival Vettel and when he went past, the German spun on the track in another catastrophic meltdown on the cockpit.

For his age, Leclerc was having a flawless march towards victory before his car lost power when the electronic turbo unit seized, handing advantage to Hamilton, then Bottas to go past in the last seven of the 57 laps competed.

Embarrassing collision

Only the appearance of the Safety Car when both Renaults retired on the final lap after an embarrassing collision preserved the podium interest of the Ferrari starlet who closed the podium since there no one is allowed to overtake when it is on course.

MUST READ: Online Backlash Wins Gor Right To Play Berkane At Kasarani But Was It Enough?

Vettel, much to the disappointment of Ferrari faithful was also involved in a collision that cost him part of his wing as he dropped down to ninth to get it repaired. 

The German showed absolute tenacity as he battled his way back to finish fifth but Hamilton had landed another early blow in their enduring rivalry by producing victory when all seemed lost.

SportPesa Racing’s Perez (10th) and Stroll (14th) both gained four places from their starting positions and managed a point for their team despite hiccups in the early stages of the race.

MUST READ: Hellen Obiri Powers To History In Brutal Women Senior 10Km Battle

The traditional podium champagne splash and the trophy presentation gave way to the entertainment programme of the night as Bahrain threw a party fit for kings in the desert to crown another successful hosting of its grand prix.

Drivers steer their cars during the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit in the desert south of the Bahraini capital Manama, on March 31, 2019. PHOTO/AFP