2017 Bahrain Grand Prix

Race cars go fast. Who knew?!

Really, I don’t know much more than that about race cars, beyond having a general idea that NASCAR is different than Indy Car is different than NHRA is different than Sprint Car racing. In grad school, we went to a couple of Enduro races, where a bunch of old ‘murican beaters race around and around a small oval track. In a plot twist, however, as they crashed and broke down during the race, the cars were just left on the track, providing obstacle hijinks that led to more wrecks and more broken-down cars. Eventually, when the track became impassable (these were 200 lap races starting with about 50 cars), the race was stopped temporarily, wreckage was mostly kind of sort of cleared, and they started racing again.  The car that survived the race and made it 200 laps first was crowned the winner (enduro, get it…). Those races may or may not have been coupled with demolition derbies that we also went to, another wreckage-strewn crowd pleaser.

I took Jack to a couple of dirt track races when he was little. At the monster truck hoo-ha we went to, we laughed and cheered as Grave Digger finally flipped over and, in the process, broke off one of its front wheels. Then there was the motocross thing that we went to see at the stock show complex, with guys on dirt bikes flying through the air and filling up the arena with exhaust and dirt aerosols. Somewhere around that time, we went to the NHRA Summer Nationals at Bandamere Speedway (soooo close to Red Rocks where I had seen Panic just weeks before, but so, soooo far away – culturally). The “good seats” I had purchased should have been labeled “cruel seats”. Even with ear protection, it’s a wonder that either of us can hear anything to this day. There were races all day, culminating in the funny cars and then the top fuel dragsters. While the noise from the funny cars was simply appalling, the cacophony from the top fuels was unbearable. So, we left.

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Grave Digger about to eat it.

 Anyway, no motor sports for me in a very long time until this past weekend (although I have seen a number of bike races). Because of many people talking it up, and with its proximity to Dhahran, I decided it was time to become reacquainted with motor car racing. This time, it was a Formula 1 race, the Bahrain Grand Prix, held at an apparently popular stop early in the F1 season, the Bahrain International Circuit. I don’t know if the track is bigger or smaller, faster or slower, curvier or straighter, or safer or more dangerous than the other F1 tracks, but it’s probably hotter and desert-ier than the others.

Formula One World Championship

Aerial view of the circuit. Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday 14 March 2014.

Here’s a pic from 2014. Let’s just say the area hasn’t greened up much since then.

And I don’t know much at all about Formula 1 racing in general, except that, outside the United States, it seems to be immensely popular. People know the drivers like Americans know NFL quarterbacks. They root for McLaren and Mercedes and Ferrari, among others. To a novice, the cars look like Indy cars, with open wheels, and not at all like hillibillie NASCAR cars. I think.

About three weeks before the race, I started to look at ticket prices and such. Starting from scratch, I leaned on a motorhead internet friend of mine (hi Kurt) for some guidance – principally on where I should sit. There are numerous places for seating – Main Grandstand, Turn One, University grandstands 1, 2, and 3 (Bahrain University is just to the northeast of the circuit), Batelco grandstands, and Victory 1 and 2 granstands. I chose the Main Grandstand because it was in viewing range of the start and finish lines, as well as the pit area. And I sprang some extra dinars for the hospitality tent – a very good call on my part.

Something I hadn’t realized until I bought tickets was that there wasn’t just one race. The whole extravaganza was an extended weekend of events. Tickets were for all three days, and you couldn’t purchase single-day tickets. Race weekend consisted of a free Thursday evening walkthrough of the pits, followed by a full day Friday of practice rounds and qualifying rounds for TCR Series, Porsche GT3 Cup Series, Formula 2, and Formula 1. Saturday held more practice and qualifying for all the groups, plus first races for TCR, Porsche, and F2. Sunday started off with final races for TCR, F2, and Porsche, followed by a couple hours of lead-up to the main event (the F1 Grand Prix). Recall that our weekend here is Friday/Saturday.

Thursday night was Commencement at KFUPM, so that took Thursday out of play for any race activities.  Even if we hadn’t had Commencement, I doubt I would have gone over anyway for just a pit road walkthrough. When I bought the tickets, I also booked a hotel for Friday night. So, I went over to Bahrain at about 11 AM Friday, checked into my hotel, and drove to the circuit to pick up my tickets and head to the track. I got there in time to catch some of the Porsche practice, and then the full first F1 practice. The Formula 1 cars go fast.

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The arrival display. Yes, there are some French, blue, costumed weirdos behind the sign.

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Looking toward the main grandstand complex. We apparently can get 30% off 2018 tickets if you want to join me next year.

Friday afternoon was a bit warm, clocking in at about 39°C (103°F), so I went in search of some much needed relief. Like an oasis in the desert, the hospitality tent drew me in. The dark and very cool inside of the tent was instantly relieving. Inside there was seating, many high-def televisions, clean bathrooms, cash food stands and bars, and a DJ cranking out techno in front of a small dance floor. It was a big tent. Food and drinks were ridiculously expensive, but they had a captive audience, so…

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They kept ambient temperature in the tent at about 3 degrees above absolute zero. The beer never got warm.

After some time in the tent, I needed to warm up a bit, so I headed back to the track. I caught the Porsche qualifying event and the main Friday evening attraction, the second F1 practice session. The picture below shows first that my seat was pretty good, and second that it’s difficult for an iPhone to catch a photograph of a F1 car going 240 mph or so.

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I think this was eventual third-place finisher Bottas in a Mercedes.

The drive back to my hotel in Manama was only about 30 minutes and I then settled into a very comfortable bed for the night. I stayed in the City Centre area this time.

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Some Manama architecture outside my hotel room window.

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A sweet Bahrain-colored Audi R8 parked outside my hotel.

Checking out late Saturday morning, I headed back to the circuit in relatively light traffic. The weather was a couple of degrees “cooler”, but still not what I would call comfortable while exposed to the angry sun. I watched the first Porsche race and headed back to the tent. I watched the first F2 race and headed back to the tent. Back to the track, I watched the final F1 practice and headed back to the tent. I sat out the first TCR race, content to watch from the frigid environment of the tent. The main event for the evening was the F1 qualifying. Not really sure what happened there, but Mercedes and Ferrari cars apparently did well and ended up getting the first three starting places for the Grand Prix.

I didn’t stay for the Enrique Iglesias concert. Instead, I drove back to KFUPM Saturday evening after the qualifier, without running into appreciable traffic on the causeway. I taught my 8 AM class and chaired a 9-11 meeting Sunday morning and headed back over the causeway just about noon. Traffic wasn’t too bad over the causeway, but invariably, I end up in the slow lanes at the checkpoints.

So, here’s what a trip over the causeway involves. I’ll use KSA to Bahrain as an example. First, you pay a toll of 25 SAR just as you are getting on the causeway. Second, there’s a checkpoint for KSA customs – they ask questions and check my car papers (registration, approval to leave KSA in the rental car, whatever). Unless they don’t check anything. You get a little ticket thing, regardless. It has a bunch of Arabic writing on it and no English, so I really don’t know what the magic ticket is. Third, is KSA passport control. Sometimes they ask for my Iqama, sometimes they don’t, and just look at the passport. They take the ticket thing and stamp the passport. Fourth is the Bahrain passport control checkpoint. Fifth, Bahrain customs. Get another ticket thing. Sixth, either just hand over ticket thing or also pay another 20 SAR. I think I know why I either pay or I don’t, but signage is really bad and most of the signs are in Arabic. I generally just smile and nod and hold out all my papers and ask what they want at each of the checkpoints. There are lines and lines of cars at each of the checkpoints. If it weren’t for all the checkpoints, Dhahran to Manama would be 30 to 40 minutes. Depending on traffic, realistically getting to Manama in an hour is pretty darn good. I’ve never had it really bad (yet) but there are four-hour horror stories. The return trip, Bahrain to KSA, is about the same, except at Saudi customs you have to get out of the car, open the trunk, and the guys search your car.

I caught the second F2 and Porsche races and retreated to the tent for two hours before the main event, the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix. They do 57 laps and it takes about two hours from start to finish. It’s loud and the cars go really fast. There were a couple of crashes, nothing too exciting or worrisome, and nobody crashes along the Main Grandstand straight track anyway. A German guy in a Ferrari won the race, followed by two guys in Mercedes. The Kias and Hyundais didn’t even bother to show up.

Overall, it was pretty fun. There’s definitely a family oriented vibe to the festivities, with clowns and jugglers and a haunted house and face painting and other shenanigans. There’s a big outdoor food court area with an adjacent outdoor shisha lounge. There are lots of merchandise vendors, but I didn’t buy any souvenirs. My VIP ticket came with a hat, so there’s that.

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Outside the Main Grandstand.

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The concert stage in the background. Sorry Enrique!

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Trapeze hula hoop shenanigans.

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Food court tents with the lit grandstand behind.

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Getting the stink eye while taking a picture of the shisha lounge.

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Teams getting ready.

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Documentation that I was there.

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At the start, it was two Mercedes and a Ferrari. At the end it was a Ferrari and two Mercedes. A German guy driving an Italian car won. There was much rejoicing and shit talking in the stands by Ferrari fans.

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This is a young Dutch driver that John R. wanted me to root for. He ummmm, strayed from the track pretty early in the race and his car didn’t work anymore.

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After the race, there were fireworks. I scooted back to Dhahran and made it home in an hour and 15 minutes.

I’ll probably do this again next year. Let me know if you want to join me.

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