The first decade of the new millennium saw the F1™ business really getting into the swing of expansion with new races being confirmed almost, it seemed, on a weekly basis.
That was a reflection of the world’s voracious appetite for this high octane business, something which was dramatically underscored by the sport’s arrival in the Middle East at Bahrain in 2004 followed by Abu Dhabi five years later.
Both circuits were very different in their own way, although underpinned by state-of-the art technology. This weekend will be highlighted for F1™ fans by the fourth running of the Abu Dhabi race on the super-spectacular Yas Marina where Jenson Button finished third behind two Red Bulls at the inaugural race in 2009, only a matter of days before he clinched his World Championship crown and then put his pen to a contract with Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.
That was a good start for McLaren’s participation in the Gulf races, but there was still a feeling of overawed bewilderment on the part of European races. In fact, for those of us of a certain generation who used to stand outside in torrential rain – wearing our plastic macs and munching our mum’s sodden ham sandwiches from greaseproof paper on the grassy spectator banks at Paddock Bend – it was all a little overwhelming. This continued expansion in the Middle East was at least in part, a means for Bernie Ecclestone, the F1™ commercial rights holder, to remind some of the older traditional European tracks of their need not to stint when it came to upgrading their facilities on a continuing basis.
The sight of the local dignitaries sweeping into the paddock at Abu Dhabi was also something I have to confess I have never seen at Snetterton. Local dignitaries, FIA president Jean Todt and McLaren CEO Ron Dennis were amongst this elite group, although beyond the circuit perimeter walls the spectator areas still wore a slightly unfinished and careworn image. The vital core, however, was complete and ready for action.
There was also much school for thought. For some time there was a belief that under Todt’s auspices the F1™ World Championship would be allowed to expand unchecked far from its European heartland. That Ecclestone was keen to further restrict testing on the basis that the time could be usefully harnessed as space in which to squeeze another three or four races into the vacant slots. Todt, however, brought a soothing tone to the debate by insisting that F1™ would not abandon Europe and, by implication, strongly hinted that the sport would never abandon its traditional roots.
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