SAKHIR, BAHRAIN // Think Formula One and you think money. Yen, dollars, sterling - and now dirhams. It is the realm of billionaires and drivers whose names and faces launch advertising campaigns worth staggering sums. However, not even this most exclusive of sports is immune to the global economic crisis. F1 too has entered a period of frugality that, refreshingly, has helped to level a playing field long dominated by the big names of Ferrari and McLaren.
With limits imposed on team spending, sponsorship dropping and new regulations coming into place, all 10 teams started the season in Melbourne much closer than ever before. This shake-up has seen some surprises as names that had been expected to sit at the back of the grid, such as Brawn GP and Red Bull, dominated the first few weeks of the season leading up to this weekend's race in Bahrain. A proposed £30 million (Dh162m/US$44m) spending cap next year, after some teams were previously spending upwards of £290m annually, may also open up the sport for new teams in future.
And, like the teams, the circuits themselves have been feeling the pinch. "Our individual ticket sales are healthy," said Martin Whitaker, the chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, the venue for tomorrow's race. "However, our corporate sales are down, and I am not surprised about that. At the same time, though, there are new businesses coming in and using the race as a way to meet other businesses rather than for just entertainment."
Without saying how far corporate sales had dropped, Mr Whitaker said the reduction might be due to image as much as anything. "Maybe it's just that businesses don't want to be seen to be entertaining in these times." The drop in corporate sales at Bahrain echoes the experience of other circuits so far in the 2009 F1 calendar. Reports in Australia suggested it had cost the Melbourne circuit as much as 50m Australian dollars (Dh132m) in lost revenue.
But while Mr Whitaker admitted organisers had to be creative to keep attracting fans, it was not all doom and gloom. "Oddly enough, we have signed up more sponsors in the past three months than we had before. I think it is as much down to the fact that we are recognised as being a platform for business than anything. "But what we have had to do is work harder and come up with new ideas and find differentiators between us and other circuits.
"Instead of just concentrating on corporate entertainment over the race weekend, we are working on packages encouraging people to combine a visit with playing golf at the Colin Montgomerie course here, for example." The types of business attending the race had also changed, he said. Gone, by and large, were the banks and financial institutions. On the rise were media and aviation companies. Corporate sales for the Abu Dhabi race opened last month, and the take-up is not yet known. As in Bahrain, Australia and China this year, overall sales have been strong, with three of the five grandstands sold out and diminishing numbers of seats available in the other two.
Indeed, if anything, the Yas Marina Circuit has benefited from the economic downturn so far. Last month Steve Worrell, the project director for Aldar, the circuit's developer, said: "The global economic meltdown has helped the projects as more workers and bidders are available now." More bidders meant more competition, and therefore more competitive costs. In Bahrain, meanwhile, fans were still arriving at the track yesterday, determined to catch the action despite often trying circumstances.
Peter Dickinson, 63, a welder from Crewe in England, has been unemployed since last November. He spent £300 on a flight with his wife Pat to Bahrain, where they are staying with their son, a teacher living in the kingdom. This will be his first live GP. "I've always wanted to go," he said. "But if you're going to go, most people just have to make it into a holiday because of the cost. Unless you're rich, of course."
Marc Solinas, 28, a British engineer living in Sydney, said he expected to spend the equivalent of Dh15,000 on his trip, including flights, accommodation and tickets. "I make it a rule that I catch one new race a year, and I've not been here before," Mr Solinas said. "People here will still keep on coming, I guess, because it is something big, something dramatic right here for them. But you will only get committed fans travelling from one country to another. Those fans aren't going to stop.
"I'm hearing Chinese, Italian, people from South America - F1 is still attractive, it doesn't matter how bad things are in the world, you're still going to get these mad, mad fans." email@example.com