It’s appropriate that Bahrain should celebrate high-octane sports; it was here that oil was first discovered in the Gulf, after all.
Fireworks explode in a riot of colours overhead as Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari takes the Bahrain Grand Prix’s chequered flag, followed by Lewis Hamilton six seconds later as the sky above the grandstands erupts.
The result puts that most evocative of Italian marques ahead of the all-conquering Mercedes silver arrows in a season that promises to be a back-and-forth battle between the best drivers of their generation.
Just a few miles east of the Bahrain International Circuit is the Jabal ad Dukhan well, which first spurted its black gold in 1931. It is thanks to this natural resource that Bahrain can afford the enormous hosting fees that Formula One commands as well as build a circuit in the desert that appears above the ochre scree landscape like a tinted glass and asphalt mirage; an oasis of screaming turbo engines.
All-in-all, the grand prix has cost the Kingdom of Bahrain around £500m since its inaugural race in 2004. That’s a whole dune of moolah, but it’s more than just the passion of Bahrain’s wealthy elite. The king and crown prince are huge car enthusiasts, and the country’s sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat, owns the majority of McLaren, yet the Grand Prix’s main purpose is to present Bahrain to the world as business-friendly and a luxury tourism destination, to mention nothing of dispelling the country’s notoriety for its dubious human rights record.
It has competition. Nearby Abu Dhabi boasts the Yas Marina circuit, which has the prestigious claim of hosting the final race of the season, while Dubai and Doha both have top level race circuits of their own, though F1 has yet to visit.
Yas Marina, in particular, is known for its big name F1 concerts, champagne-fuelled parties, eye-catching architecture, a Ferrari theme park, and a flotilla of yachts bobbing in its trackside marina, which are crammed with a VIP guest-list of decadent deal-makers.
Bahrain lacks the flashiness of F1’s other Middle Eastern round. It’s a more family-friendly affair. With that in mind, I have secured a family-friendly set of wheels for my trip. While at last year’s Yas Marina race I was cruising around in a bespoke Rolls-Royce Wraith, in Bahrain I’ve gone for Mercedes’ junior SUV, the GLK 250.
Utilitarian in a slightly cuddly way, the GLK looks like a baby G-Wagon, the boxy jeep which the three-pointed-star has been making since 1979 with its styling barely changed, but an ever-growing level of luxury ensuring it remains the ultimate off-roader for rappers, oligarchs and sheiks. But like Bahrain, the GLK is an altogether more discrete alternative.
I actually inherited this Mercedes from Lewis Hamilton’s pitcrew. The local Mercedes dealer provided the world championship constructor with a fleet of vehicles including this one, which was still knocking around despite the recent introduction of its replacement, the curvier GLC.
But the chunky looks of the GLK suit the desert better, the angles mimicking that of the capital Manama’s World Trade Centre, not to mention the three wind turbine propellers that power much of the building and are visually reminiscent of the car’s hood emblem.
Meaning “two seas”, Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands in the turquoise Persian (or Arabian) Gulf. The Mercedes can hold its own and it rumbles across the shale expanse on a visit to Hawar Island, stalking gazelles, cormorans, spiny-tailed lizards, antelope and mountain goats that roam what is essentially a military base, with beefy-looking Humvees giving the handful of resorts there a Rock The Casbah vibe. One senses diving or petting in the Hawar Beach Hotel’s pool might be severely punished.
It looks more at home parked in front of Manama’s Ritz Carlton, where F1’s highest rollers, including newly installed CEO Chase Carey and exiting tsar Bernie Ecclestone both stayed this month. It boasts a private beach, individual villas for those seeking privacy and space, and three swimming pools and ten restaurants. I dined at Primavera, the city’s most premium Italian, for spinach gnocchi and saffron risotto, in honour of the race winners. But truth be told, Ferrari’s drivers stay at the Sofitel.
Located just a stone’s throw from the race circuit in Sakhir, the Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq boasts the Gulf’s only Thalassa spa, which is by royal appointment, and hosted Herr Vettel this year. The manager is a little coy when I ask whether this is the best place to party, but confirms that 55 bottles were delivered Sunday night to the four-time world champion’s room overlooking the Gulf.
At night, boy racers in Porsche 911 Turbos pull off the highway and head to the oil fields where they can max out their machines. But Bahrain is less of a supercar circus than other places I’ve visited in the region, and the country’s petrolheads seem content to live out their speed fantasies from the F1 bleachers without having to risk life and limb.
Perhaps it’s the Armoured Personnel Carriers lurking in laybys that puts them off, though they are a lot less visible that they were six years ago, when I witnessed the uprising here. Really, the only scary-looking machine I saw this time was a Toyota pick-up with what I can only assume was an anti-aircraft gun attached to the roof. As traffic calming measures go, it certainly had a sobering effect on yours truly.
The country’s most enchanting drive is the one to Saudi Arabia, across the King Fahad Causeway which links Bahrain to the mainland. This 15-mile stretch of tarmac across the Gulf cost £625m to build, but for a couple of quid it’s a great place to cruise at sunset and if, like me, you don’t have a visa, turn around and drive back.
Before the road trip, I stock up on nosh at Haji, the oldest restaurant in town. That’s not saying much; it dates from 1950 and remains in the family, now run by the fourth-generation proprietor Zuhair Haji. His food is famous, and there’s no menu because it changes by the hour.
Tomato, egg and cheese mixed up with spices and coriander serves as a breakfast of champions, followed by a dal of lentils, garlic and dried onion that we spread on the local pita-like flat bread.
The GLK’s 2.1-litre Bluetec turbo-diesel isn’t sporty, but packs plenty of torque, 0-60mph in 8.2 seconds, and combined mpg of around 28. Sustainability is also a key theme for Bahrainis, who know that the oil won’t be there forever. Since the 1980s, Bahrain has been the Gulf’s banking centre, and now, in addition to F1 and its shareholding in McLaren, it has become a standalone hub for tech investment.
Bahrainis are also deeply proud of their heritage. The national fort, Qal’at al-Bahrain, can trace its foundations to 2,300 BC. They are also a nation of craftsmen and musicians. Five years ago, the king opened the £40m National Theatre, which hosts world-class opera and ballet.
I also visited a handicrafts atelier where I witnessed a one man marching band playing various bits of dead goat. As well as the oud, an Arabian type of lire, he hit his jaunty chorus with bag pipes made from goat skin, and a set of goat nails hanging from his waist which acted as a kind of maracas.
The Mercedes’ 450-litre capacity boot is roomy enough for a goat-based band’s gear or a trip to the souk. Alcohol is readily available in bars and restaurants but the locals still like to get their high from sugar, and the souk can cater for one’s sweet tooth with mounds of sticky red halva – a dense, jelly-like and nutty-tasting confection – among the vendors of a rainbow of spices and reproduction Panerai.
There is valuable gear to be found, too, particularly in the Gold City Mall where Cartier-stamped bracelets are priced purely on their weight and Dana pearls are kept under lock and key. These are the ultimate prize for the divers that are a centuries-old staple of the country’s maritime tradition. The set of earrings and necklace I view, with three tiny pearls between them, is priced at £35k.
Pearl is a material increasingly used in custom luxury interiors, including the Rolls-Royce I had in Abu Dhabi. Many of the foremost brands have their pearls sourced in Bahrain. There’s none inside the GLK, but for a fee it’d look the bees-knees decking out the inside of a G-Wagon.
When I return my Mercedes to the dealer I find an oversize G500 in the showroom with double-height suspension and a £200k price tag. Sure enough, the lucky owner has spec’d it out with locally-sourced bling. A nod to the country’s three most visible resources; oil, pearls and money. But somehow it would look a lot more at home across the Gulf, in Abu Dhabi, say.
Bahrain has the raw materials to be supercar central, but despite it having the fastest cars and drivers in the world for one weekend each April, you’ll best fit in with a more modest Mercedes SUV.