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Bahrain sees bright future for night race

Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives during the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) in
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives during the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) in

By Alan Baldwin

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain believes its Formula One circuit has a bright future after the country's first floodlit grand prix turned out a thriller on Sunday.

Sakhir Circuit chairman Zayed Alzayani told Reuters the decision to turn the 10th anniversary event into a night race was a statement of intent for the future of motorsport in the Gulf kingdom.

"There's more to come," he said in an interview at the Sakhir desert circuit.

"We want to branch out. Not just the racing aspects of motorsports but the other stuff that goes around it. The development of teams, research and manufacturing relevant to the motorsport industry.

"A racing school, to develop talent. The missing pieces of the puzzle to make motorsport happen."

Another piece of that jigsaw was fitted into place on Sunday with the announcement that Bell Racing Helmets would be relocating its global research and development and manufacturing operations to a facility within the circuit grounds from 2015.

Bahrain is an important stakeholder in Formula One, with state investment fund Mumtalakat owning the circuit as well as half of the McLaren team.

The country also has considerable influence within the governing International Automobile Federation, with FIA president Jean Todt making Sunday's race the first he has attended this season.

By installing floodlights, Bahrain intends to keep activities running at the circuit throughout the year and at more fan-friendly times.

"The floodlights will definitely open up a bigger spectrum for us," said Alzayani.

"We will be able to use the track throughout the summer now, whereas in the past we had to shut down practically from mid-May to September because of the heat.

"In the past the only thing that was running through the summer months was the drag championship because it's a floodlit strip. We will take advantage of the lighting now."

Sunday afternoon, the traditional slot for races in Europe, is the middle of the working day in the Middle East and when temperatures reach their peak. The shift to evening opens up far more possibilities.

The circuit said the race drew its biggest crowd yet with 31,000 attending on Sunday.

This year's grand prix was the third round of the season but Bahrain has opened the championship before and Alzayani was coy on whether the race might seek that slot again next year.

"We are in constant talks with Bernie (Ecclestone)," he said. "It's premature now to talk about next year's calendar. Towards the end of the year we'll talk and exchange ideas and see what suits better.

"They also have to look at logistics and team movements and cargo movements. But I think we did well this year by securing testing before the season.

"It's not out of reach. But it's something we have to agree mutually with Bernie."

Alzayani painted an upbeat picture for the future, despite a continuing backdrop of civil unrest - which led to the event being canceled in 2011 and has triggered subsequent calls by human rights activists for the race to be canceled.

"In terms of public perception, I don't think our image was affected," he said of 2011 and its bloody aftermath.

"I think 2012 wiped out the misery of 2011. We had a fairly good attendance, good support and the race went on despite all the speculation and negative media.

"In 2004 we had Humvees at the gates with machine guns. That was because of concern from the F1 travelling family that because of the Iraq war we wanted extra security. We had cement blocks ... we don't have any of that today."

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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