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No champagne, but plenty of fizz at Bahrain's Formula One

By Daniela Deane for CNN
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CNN's Richard Quest gets an exclusive sneak peek at the Bahrain F1 racetrack as the new season gears up.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Winners spray a non-alcoholic drink instead of champagne
  • Racing brought an estimated $1.8 billion into Bahrain through 2008
  • It has also upped the country's global profile
  • Tracks have been extended for this year's race

London, England (CNN) -- Champagne won't be sprayed this weekend in Bahrain at the country's Formula One Grand Prix, a hotly anticipated race that kicks off the season.

In a nod to the Islamic country, the winners spray Waard instead, a traditional, non-alcoholic drink made from rosewater and pomegranates.

But even without the real bubbly, celebration is in the air. Auto racing is booming in the Middle East.

For the 60th anniversary of Formula One, the kingdom of Bahrain, one of the most prosperous states in the Persian Gulf, is kicking off the series with new extensions to their award-winning track.

And the opening of the series in Bahrain follows on the heels of last year's closing race at the new Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi -- the second Formula 1 track to be built in the Middle East.

"It's going to be fantastic," Sheikh Salman Bin Is Al Khalifa, acting CEO of the Bahrain International Circuit, told CNN's Richard Quest as he took him on an exclusive tour of the new track ahead of the race this weekend.

"There's 23 corners. After turn four, there's a blind corner ... that's going to add so much more excitement. By the time you see this corner, you're committed. You're going almost 160-180 (mph), breaking hard."

The construction of the new circuit was heavily subsidized by the kingdom's government.

After turn four, there's a blind corner ... that's going to add so much more excitement.
--Sheikh Salman Bin Is Al Khalifa, acting CEO, Bahrain International Circuit
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Racing has been good to Bahrain, which in 2004 became the first Middle Eastern country to land a Formula One Grand Prix, although the global recession has meant a slowing of the growth of its value to the archipelago of 33 islands located off Saudi Arabia's eastern coast.

A study by Dubai-based Godo Research and Marketing Consultancy put the value of the 2008 Grand Prix to Bahrain at $600 million, up $52 million over the year before, according to Gulf News. The monetary value of the race to Bahrain increased by 40 percent in 2007, 10 percent in 2008 and eight percent this year, Gulf News reported.

That was made up of ticket sales, TV coverage, transport, accommodation, food and beverages, merchandise and souvenirs and other leisure activities, according to the survey.

Besides the cash infusion, Formula One has also enhanced the tiny kingdom-by-the-sea's global profile.

Formula One is believed to have contributed to Bahrain's stepped-up ranking in the World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, according to Gulf News. The 2009 index ranks Bahrain, whose name means "two seas" in Arabic, as no. 41, a jump of seven positions over the year before.

Bahrain spent some $150 million developing the circuit in 2003, according to Gulf News, and an additional $50 million on infrastructure. But the value of all Formula One-related activities totaled $1.8 billion between 2004 and 2008, according to Gulf News.

The Bahrain International Circuit, located in Sakhir, in southwest Manama, also hosts other smaller auto racing activities and is used as a venue for business meetings and concerts throughout the year.

One special feature of the Bahrain course is the dust blowing in from the desert, which often means a light layer of dust on the track. The dust can make the opening laps of the race more hazardous.

"With the addition of the new extension, we've got a fast, flowy section that's undulating, rises and falls," Sheikh Salman Bin Rashid Al Khalifa, another member of the Bahraini royal family and a professional racer, told CNN. "It's very challenging."

"We've got four straights here," said Sheikh Salman, who was the first Arab to win a single-seater championship in 2005. "And technical sections leading onto those straights. So the track presents a lot of overtaking opportunities, which is very rare to find in circuits around the world."

"This is the first time I've driven something like this," he said. "My personal dream is to make it into Formula One."