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Sun 28 Jan 2007 12:00 AM

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Race for the prize

Could the world’s richest sport be heading to the world’s richest destination?

What do you get if you cross a slice of wholly owned Abu Dhabi Government development company (Mubadala) that has a 5% stake in luxury sports car manufacturer Ferrari with an inaugural Abu Dhabi Formula One festival opening in two weeks on February 3? Then add a pinch of proposed Abu Dhabi-based Ferrari theme park and race circuit set to open in 2008 — ironically also the year Bahrain’s F1 deal reaches its expiry date?

As we predicted months ago Bahrain will soon lose its F1 status. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out why with one of the richest places on the planet slowly gearing up to either taking over the Kingdom’s place as the number one Formula One Grand Prix destination or adding to it as a potential second venue.

At the time of winning the bid (by being handed the third opening slot of the F1 season) and staging the first ever Grand Prix to be held in the Middle East on April 4, 2004, the US$150m Bahrain International Circuit fought off fierce competition from elsewhere in the region to stage the race, with Egypt, Lebanon as well as the UAE all hoping to grab the 320kmph-plus spotlight (although no formal bid was sent in by the UAE).

To its credit, and despite fears sand would blow onto the track, the BIC was awarded the best organised Grand Prix by the FIA, the sports governing body, but ever since it was chosen as the surprise location for the world’s richest sport rumours have been speeding around the media circuit faster than Alonso’s McLaren Mercedes.

The BIC has been dogged by constant suggestions that a bigger, more accessible and more flamboyant location would best suit Formula One rather than a track surrounded, well, by nothing but sand with only a handful of hotels (several kilometres from the circuit) and places where people from all over the world can congregate and enjoy three days of variety. Not to knock Bahrain too much as it is making a huge effort to build for the future, but as yet, it has very little of those qualities to offer the bold and the beautiful of Formula One.

Let’s be honest, F1 is a premier motor racing event but the actual race contributes very little. It is the parties, the celebrities, the paparazzi, the city lights, the venues, the restaurants and hotels, the museums, and the glitz and the glamour of the location that draws in the crowds. Not to forget the US$1bn BIC makes from media rights alone.

The Emirates, and particularly neighbouring Dubai has all of that and more with some of the best DJs and nightlife in the world and its capital city is fast following suit with mega constructions underway on some of its 200-plus islands, while the Louvre and Guggenheim as well as perhaps the Tate museums are setting up in a few years time — even more reasons why Abu Dhabi could soon see cars whizzing round a purpose built track.

The festival itself, laid on by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority director general Mubarak Al Muhairi (look out for an exclusive interview next week) will be a who’s who of F1 and the best chance the region has ever had to show what it can offer to F1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone.

World champion Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, Scott Speed and Christijan Albers will all be driving while the McLaren, Honda, Toyota, BMW-Sauber, Super Aguri, Toro Rosso, Spyker and Red Bull teams have all confirmed their attendance. And with cars burning some serious rubber up and down from the Corniche through to the Marina Mall it will make for a spectacular sight.

Expect an announcement in the very near future, and, as always, you heard it here first.

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