Bahrain brings change to familiar F1 landscape

MANAMA: Never has a bottle of fizzy fruit juice attracted so much attention as at the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix. 

A magnum of 'Warrd' provided a conversation piece on Friday as a television crew took close-up shots of the non-alcoholic beverage to be sprayed on the podium by today's triumphant trio. 

Formula One's debut in the Middle East stands out like a tree in the desert, as different as the fruity blend of pomegranate, bitter orange and rosewater to the more usual winner's champagne. 

'Land of contrasts' may be an over-used term but Formula One visitors are nonetheless finding it useful, particularly on arrival after being handed an introduction to Islam and a guide book that details where to find the best beer. 

The gleaming Sakhir circuit is an architectural tour-de-force against a desert moonscape more hospitable to camel racing than finely-tuned cars crammed with cutting-edge technology. 

“Bahrain is a new experience for the world of Formula One and offers a backdrop outside the circuit that is more reminiscent of a rally than a Grand Prix,” said Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt. 

As a former rally co-driver, he should know. 

The sophistication of a wealthy modern kingdom, with luxury shopping malls, air-conditioned limousines and familiar western franchises contrasts to the drive along the desert highway to Sakhir. 

The occasional camel might be seen, with camel racing one of the many local attractions on offer along with Grand Prix simulators at a Formula One park outside the circuit. 

The circuit, with rows of potted palm trees brought in to decorate the spacious paddock and 4,000 tonnes of finest Welsh granite imported to underpin the track, has left little change from US$150 million. 

Reporters who have covered Formula One for years stop to take photographs of the magnificent grandstands, topped by a modern interpretation of Arabian wind towers with tented awnings. 

Drivers, used to the traffic chaos of Sao Paulo or Kuala Lumpur, find themselves watching nervously in their mirrors for boy racers in Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches weaving through the Manama traffic. 

Malaysia in 1999 was the last time Formula One's travelling circus arrived in such an unfamiliar environment. 

The two are comparable, even if Bahrain lacks the sticky heat of south-east Asia. 

Both are state-of-the-art circuits with a flavour unlike any other venue in a championship still dominated by the sport's traditional European heartland and historic tracks such as Monza, Spa and Silverstone. 

The contrast for Formula One could not be more acute, with teams travelling from the steamy tropics to the Middle East before the first round in Europe. 

The San Marino Grand Prix, at Italy's cramped and soon-to-be-axed Imola circuit, will come as quite a shock. – Reuters  

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