How would you sum up 2009 in terms of Formula One? It was a fantastic season and a good chase. It started out with three teams sprinting and the others playing catch up. But by the end of the season, first and second were gone, but there was a big battle for third.
Has Formula One become more about the engineering than the driver? If you are a F1 driver, you are in the top tier of drivers. But it’s all about how you match the car to the driver. It is a formula. What Ross Brawn does is design a car that Jensen can jump in and dominate. And that’s the magic of a successful team.
Abu Dhabi stole some of the limelight from the Bahrain International Circuit this year. Do you see the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as a partner or a competitor? When we started in 2004, we wanted to build the brand in the region. Before Bahrain if you looked at a map of where Formula One was held, you could see they flew over this part of the world. But if you want a world championship, then you need to come to the Middle East. It put Bahrain on the map and we were leading the way. Abu Dhabi completes the brand in the region, that’s how I look at it. In terms of the circuit, you can’t really compare: ours cost $150 million whereas theirs cost over $1 billion. How can you compete against that money? But race for race we can be as competitive if not better. And that comes down to the team, the people and what makes the Bahrain Grand Prix the Bahrain Grand Prix. So I’m not worried about our race. [Formula One] have confidence in us and we surprise them, so much so that they have chosen Bahrain as the first race of 2010.
The Gulf Air title sponsorship of the Bahrain Grand Prix is up for renewal next year. Do you think they will renew? As the national carrier, Gulf Air has been fantastic as a partner. The contract is with Formula One, not the BIC. We would love them to be the title sponsors again, but it is a difficult time for all airlines. In its six year history, the podium of the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix has been dominated by Europeans and South Americans. How long before an Arab stands on it? At first we didn’t fully understand how hard it was to get into Formula One. We thought if you were a quick driver then you’d be able to find a way up. But you have to compare yourself with the base that enters Formula One. Take Europe, for example. From a base of 3,000 serious karters, you might get two or three going into Formula One. And then look at the Middle East. Where’s our base? So that’s what we didn’t understand before. I see it as a real possibility in the next four or five years if we build a proper base.
Would you support a Grand Prix bid from Dubai or Qatar? The Arabian Peninsula is almost as big as Europe, and how many Grand Prix do we have in Europe? Could there be another Grand Prix in the region? Absolutely. Is it time and are we there yet? Of course Bernie Ecclestone will decide that. But I don’ think Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would have been agreed if it had been back-to-back [with the launch of the Bahrain]. It would need time, but I don’t see it as a problem. Money generated from the Bahrain Grand Prix accounts for over 2.5% of Bahrain’s GDP. Are there plans to bring other major events to the country? We have used the Bahrain Grand Prix as a case study in terms of the economic impact. The fact is you cannot have the same as the Grand Prix, but how do you take that model and use it? I am a racer so I am going to be biased, but I think we should be looking at more regional races to grow the fan base in this region.
Who will you be cheering in 2010? I’m a big Lewis Hamilton fan.