There’s more to Bahrain International Circuit than Formula One. Liz O’Reilly went along to find out what happens during the rest of the year and caught up with two of the women who form part of the world’s largest team of female race marshals.
Whether you’re a racing enthusiast or not, there’s something about the roar of the engines and squeal of tyres on hot Tarmac, and there can scarcely be anyone on this little island who hasn’t visited Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) at least once.
Known worldwide as ‘The Home of Motorsport in the Middle East’, the BIC has hosted the Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix since it opened in 2004.
In 2007 the venue became the first Grand Prix circuit to be awarded the distinguished FIA Institute Centre of Excellence award, given for excellent safety, race marshal and medical facilities, and for the high standards of technology required to maintain these.
Generally one of the first races of the Grand Prix season, Bahrain’s big racing weekend draws massive international crowds and runs over three days with practices and qualifying rounds that the public can access at a fraction of the cost of the race itself.
But, once the final chequered flag has fallen on F1 and the fleet of private aircraft have whisked the international jet set off to the next glamorous destination, the BIC gets on with the business of being a year-round destination for motorsports enthusiasts.
The calendar includes Bahrain Drag Racing Championship, the biggest drag racing series in the Gulf, which is backed up by regular drag and drift nights at which non-racers can put their own skills to the test.
There’s also the BIC 2,000cc Challenge, the Kingdom’s own local racing championship, and the Bahrain Superbike Championship, the newest addition to the calendar.
And, towards the end of the year, there’s the FIA WEC Six Hours of Bahrain, an eclectic endurance race, attracting some of the biggest names in the motor racing business, which takes its inspiration from the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The track itself, in terms of future race development and everyday operation, is run by a management team headed by chief executive Shaikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa but the actual races are run by a team of highly competent and dedicated marshals.
In total 1,250 marshals operate at the circuit, of which 25-30 per cent are women, thought to be the world’s highest percentage of females in this role. They are part of the Bahrain Motor Sports Federation; most are Bahraini and all are volunteers.
Becoming a marshal isn’t hard, but it does require dedication – they’re out at the track whenever there’s something on and can be doing anything from corner flagging to sitting in the race control observing to ensure fair play and safety.
The track’s Mohamed Shareeda explains: “Marshals begin as a track runner, or flaggie, then, as they become more experienced, they are ranked up to junior and move through the ranks to senior, second and eventually chief marshal. Marshals are at every event. For the smaller ones, there might be 50 or 60 of them; for a big event, like the F1 or the WEC, the whole team will be here.
“The majority are in the pits and scrutineering, and they’re also at points around the track. They also carry out prior and post-race inspections on the cars to ensure the rules of the different championships are being followed.
“We are one of the top circuits in the world for safety and security and our marshals were involved with helping set up the Abu Dhabi race. Our teams are now travelling to Azerbaijan, which has its first F1 this year, to help train the team there. In fact we already have people out there doing demonstrations of things like extraction and recovery [essential if there is a crash].
“For anyone who wants to become a marshal, they just have to get in touch and register. There is a short interview and then training and, of course, they start at the most junior level. It’s a great way to learn about motor sport and we really are like a family here. We socialise together and support each other; it’s a really fun thing to be involved in.”
Bayan Alghanem is 24 and has been marshalling since 2013. A customer sales operative at Batelco, she says:
“I decided to do it for the experience.
“I’m a race communicator, which means I observe the track and give instructions to the flag marshals.
“Since I started work, I can’t come so often but I come when I can and I really enjoy it.
“For me, also, the F1 is the most exciting race because it’s dark and the lights give an extra excitement.
“Once you join the BIC, it’s like being part of a family. We all do things together and my sister, Jenan, is also a marshal.”
Bayan will be going to Abu Dhabi later in the year as part of a marshal exchange so she will experience the region’s other big racing event.
Foz Janahi, 29, is a senior marshal who’s been helping to run races for 10 years. During the week she works in operations admin for Injaz Bahrain but, at the weekend, there’s nowhere she would rather be than trackside.
She says: “Lots of my friends are marshals, so that’s how I got involved. I do it for the excitement. I love the adrenalin!
“I used to study at the University of Bahrain [which is close to the circuit] when F1 started. I loved the noise and the power and really wanted to be involved.
“Our job is to observe all around the track and, for example, if there is an accident, we give instructions for the marshals on what to do.
“My favourite race is the F1; there’s nothing like it for the feeling of excitement. But I was also here when we had the 24-hour race and that was really great.
“We have a new lady marshal starting today. She will be coming to learn how things are done. It’s always great having new people joining the racing family.
“My own family, too, are super supportive. Whenever I get home from a race, I sit down with my dad and go through all that’s happened during the day and he gives me feedback. It’s a brilliant thing for us to share.
“I started out as a flaggie [one of the most junior members of the marshals team] and now I’m a senior and I’ll be part of the group going to Azerbaijan to help set up that race, which is really exciting.
Being a marshal gives me the chance to meet new people and do things I’d never otherwise get to do.”
And, asked if she ever fancies taking to the track herself, the answer is an emphatic “Yes. I haven’t done it yet, but there’s always a possibility.”
Check out members of the Bahrain marshals team getting their Happy on.