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The History of Formula 1 in the Middle East

In the past 70 years, the Formula 1 World Championship has raced in every corner of the globe. From its original roots in Europe, it has expanded to the Americas, South East Asia and Australia. And in 2004, the Middle East was the latest region added to the schedule of the world’s most exciting motor racing series.

On the memorable date of 4 April 2004 – 04.04.04 – a new race took place on a purpose-built circuit on the island kingdom of Bahrain. The Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix initiated a golden period of growth of motor sport in the Middle East which culminates with the first-ever Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on the streets of Jeddah this coming December.

Back in 2004, a 5.4km track was constructed in the Bahraini desert, a short drive from the capital Manama, featuring a main grandstand and a palm-tree lined paddock behind the pit garages. Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher won the inaugural 57-lap race.

In 2010, Bahrain hosted the season-opening Grand Prix which was a special celebration to coincide with Formula 1’s 60th anniversary. Held on a longer 6.3km layout, the weekend included demonstration laps featuring 18 of the sport’s greatest champions who were reunited with their legendary cars.

The staging of the events in Bahrain, wasn’t the first time Grand Prix cars had raced in the Arab-speaking world, however. In the 1930s, drivers and famous manufacturers competed on a road course in Tripoli in Libya and in 1958, Casablanca in Morocco held a round of the Formula 1 World Championship.

In 1981, F1 got its first taste of the Arabian Gulf when a promotional race took place in Dubai. Famous drivers such as Stirling Moss and Dan Gurney took part in a ‘celebrity’ event racing Citroen saloon cars, plus a number of F1 machines did demonstration laps on a makeshift course. Twenty-three years later, Dubai opened its first permanent motor racing circuit and in the same year (2004), Qatar unveiled its Losail track which runs motorbike racing.

Bahrain was the only venue in the Gulf to host F1, until the announcement that Abu Dhabi was to construct a multi-million-dollar facility to have its own Grand Prix from 2009 onwards. A new 5.5km, 21-corner track was built on Yas Island, close to Abu Dhabi’s international airport. The spectacular new circuit was constructed with its own marina and featured a hotel that spanned a section of the lap, so guests could watch the cars circulate below – from their bedroom window.

In addition, organisers installed floodlights and with the race start coinciding with sunset, the whole venue is lit up. The temperate weather and spectacular location make the Middle East a fitting location for Formula 1’s annual climax. And this year, one week before the Abu Dhabi race, F1 will visit Jeddah for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on 3-5th December in another exciting chapter for F1 in the region.