Hiring Bahrain’s F1 Circuit

One of the most important circuits on the F1 itinerary is now offering tailormade visits that extend from gut-wrenchingly thrilling Dragster Xperiences to full hire of the track for night racing. Is it a petrolhead’s ultimate weekend away, asks Simon de Burton

The Dragster Xperience is one of the nocturnal activities offered at the Bahrain International Circuit
The Dragster Xperience is one of the nocturnal activities offered at the Bahrain International Circuit | Image: Bahrain International Circuit (BIC)

There are plenty of activities for which the preparation required takes somewhat longer than the event itself – alpine skiing, for example. Or freefall parachuting. Or tobogganing down the infamous Cresta Run. Until recently, however, I never imagined doing something that would require 30 minutes to “get ready”, but be over and done with in little more than the bat of an eye.

An aerial view of the BIC during the qualifying phase of April’s Grand Prix
An aerial view of the BIC during the qualifying phase of April’s Grand Prix | Image: Sutton Motorsport Images/BIC

The activity in question is so-called “top fuel” drag racing, in which long, narrow, cartoon-like cars with monstrously powerful engines, tiny wheels at the front and huge ones at the back are launched down a quarter-mile-long strip of tarmac. In terms of the time/danger equation, drag racing is possibly one of the riskiest sports in the world – tyres blow, engines burst into flames and cars take off. Sometimes they just fall apart.

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Despite all this, I couldn’t resist the chance to sample what must be the almost unparalleled rush of being catapulted down the quarter mile in a way that, I was assured, was about as safe as it could get – ie, as a passenger in the back of a dragster converted to carry two extra people. It is, essentially, a “dragster taxi” with a 10.5-litre engine that has been “detuned” for reliability to produce a mere 1,000hp.

BIC’s eight-storey Sakhir Tower, next to the track, is home to VIP suites, a restaurant and a roof terrace
BIC’s eight-storey Sakhir Tower, next to the track, is home to VIP suites, a restaurant and a roof terrace | Image: Ben Nicholson/BIC

All I can report of my Dragster Xperience is that it was gut-wrenchingly thrilling and stomach-churningly frightening in equal measure. And that it was all over and done with in 8.197 seconds at a terminal velocity of around 170mph before deployment of the parachute brake. Other than that, my senses failed to register much – it simply happened too fast.

The testing off-road Land Rover Experience
The testing off-road Land Rover Experience | Image: Bahrain International Circuit (BIC)

The dragster drive is just one of many high-octane activities available at the Bahrain International Circuit, a place best known as a Formula 1 venue – but also one that pays for itself by being available for hire, in whole or in part. Less than seven hours’ flight time from the UK, offering state-of-the-art facilities, top-class local accommodation and guaranteed good weather, it promises the ultimate weekend away for any dyed-in-the-wool petrolhead.

A floodlit night race at the BIC’s karting track
A floodlit night race at the BIC’s karting track | Image: Bahrain International Circuit (BIC)

Built from scratch 12 years ago at a cost of $150m, the BIC is probably one of the best-thought-out motorsport venues in the world, having been specifically designed to host Formula 1 races from the very outset – and, although controversial and reluctantly accepted due to Bahrain’s questionable human rights record, it has come to be regarded as one of the most important circuits on the F1 itinerary. “Our initial idea was simply to build an international-quality race circuit, which we hoped could gradually be upgraded to Formula 1 specification over a number of years,” says BIC chief executive Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahrain royal family – and a man shamelessly obsessed with fast cars and motorcycles. “The king, however, said we should simply go ahead and meet all the requirements for a Formula 1 track from the very beginning, partly because it would be more cost effective. As a result, we visited tracks around the world and tried to learn from any mistakes that seemed to have been made. Which is why, for example, there are staircases exactly where they are needed, why there is easy access from the paddock to the paddock clubs and why there are two sets of pit garages instead of the usual one.

A Radical SR3 RSX, one of the track cars ordered for clients’ use on the Grand Prix circuit
A Radical SR3 RSX, one of the track cars ordered for clients’ use on the Grand Prix circuit | Image: Radical Sportscars/Calvert Studios

“We also looked carefully at the distances between key points around the venue – at some circuits, spectators need to walk for miles from the car parks simply to get to the grandstands. We eliminated that problem by factoring in parking for 13,000 cars and plenty of strategically placed access tunnels. For the design of the track itself, we had the full input of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. The first corner is named after Michael Schumacher,” adds the sheikh, who says the initial build of the circuit was completed in just 486 days.

BIC chief executive Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa
BIC chief executive Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa | Image: Bahrain International Circuit (BIC)

Among other features, the facility now boasts the eight-storey Sakhir Tower, containing VIP suites, a restaurant, roof terrace and administration offices; a 10,500-seater grandstand, making a total capacity of 34,500; 47 hospitality suites; and a pristine pit and paddock complex accommodating 11 grand-prix teams, their cars, equipment and support crews, with 18 buildings for up to 18 teams.

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Inspired by the popular night racing staged in Singapore, the BIC was also upgraded two years ago with the addition of $50m-worth of high-tech floodlighting, which, as well as enabling after-dark F1 races, has generally extended the calendar of activities at the circuit and made it possible for more events to be held there. “As a people, we tend to do things in the evening, when the temperature is lower,” says the sheikh. “The addition of floodlighting has benefited the circuit hugely – not only is our F1 race held after dark, but we can now run all the other activities at night too.” That means, for example, that drag-race nights – at which anyone can turn up and pay a small fee to run their own cars, be they purpose-built racers or standard saloons – are often punctuated by the squealing tyres of expert “drift” drivers honing their skills just a few hundred metres away.

To date, the opportunity to rent the BIC’s extensive facilities has been enjoyed mainly by enthusiasts from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, who come with exotic supercars such as McLaren P1s, Koenigseggs, Paganis and “LaFerraris” to put them through their paces on the circuit. Now, however, the sheikh is keen to welcome visitors from further afield, with the BIC offering a range of tailormade packages that can be designed for groups or for individuals.

An outlay of £1,000 (plus flights and accommodation), for example, will buy a couple of evening sessions at the aforementioned drag strip, as well as an afternoon’s instruction and driving on the circuit’s superb off‑road course, which incorporates mind-bogglingly steep ascents and descents, deep-water features, a flooded tunnel and plenty of testing terrain created using the thousands of tonnes of rock removed during the construction of the F1 circuit. Initially known as the “Hummer Experience” prior to the Hummer marque’s demise in 2010, the facility is now part of the class‑leading Land Rover Experience and, as such, offers top‑level instructors and an extensive fleet of the latest Land Rover vehicles.

Also included in the £1,000 fee is a morning of practice followed by a full-scale race at the BIC’s exceptional kart track, which opened in 2011. Measuring 1.4km and incorporating 14 turns and several elevation changes, it became the first track to host a world kart championship at night and remains the only one homologated for night racing. Designed to be set up in six different configurations, it’s certainly the most exciting circuit of its type that I have ever experienced – and, with its stable of 75 hire karts, is said to attract 60,000 visitors per year.

Undoubtedly the BIC’s biggest draw, however, is that it is possible to rent the entire Grand Prix circuit for an evening – and to stage your very own night race – for around £20,000. Cars are not included in the cost, but, in anticipation of a growth in business from Europe, the BIC has recently ordered a fleet of eight British-built Radical track cars and a further eight Renault Clio Cup club racers.

“It is easy for visitors from Saudi to bring their cars across, but for anyone coming from far away the logistics involved in doing so are clearly more complex. Being able to offer the Radicals and the Renaults on site and ready to go, with full mechanical backup, means that foreign visitors can simply turn up and drive without having to think about anything else,” says the sheikh. “They can use the evening simply as an opportunity to drive fast, develop their skills and have fun in safety, or we can arrange everything necessary to stage a full-scale night race, with all the marshalling, pit crews, timing facilities and so on that such an event entails – how far it’s taken is entirely the choice of the client.”

Spending £20,000 on a few hours of adrenaline-rich driving is undoubtedly a substantial outlay. But when divided among a group of like-minded friends who relish the idea of having one of the world’s most impressive Grand Prix circuits to themselves for a night, it starts to seem like a bargain. And with the oil-rich island’s petrol costing just over a quarter of a euro per litre… well, what are you waiting for?

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