Desert race offers new challenge for Formula One

Jenson Button believes that he can repeat - perhaps even better - his Malaysian Grand Prix result as Formula One moves to an Arabic country for the first time in almost half a century, and yesterday gave a firm thumbs-up to the opulent oasis of Bahrain's desert circuit.

"It's probably the best track built in recent years," he said. "There are some good high-speed corners, and even the slow corners aren't that slow. There will be some good overtaking opportunities too, maybe as many as four or five per lap."

The 5.4km facility is arguably the most impressive in the Middle East, though Dubai, who revealed their own Formula One standard track earlier in the week, would take issue with that. Designed by Hermann Tilke, who created the Sepang track in Malaysia, Bahrain International Circuit has cost £85m and literally became fully operational only days before the Formula One circus began to move in.

"It's super," Formula One's powerbroker, Bernie Ecclestone, said yesterday. "Bahrain International Circuit will be one of the best in the world. The standard is so high, it's raised the bar so much. I'm very impressed and I'm very happy with it. It will be a great event. If I wasn't so directly involved in Formula One myself, I'd be buying a ticket before they sell out!"

Neither of those eventualities is likely. But this will certainly be a different kind of grand prix, which makes it all the more appealing. There will not be any alcohol in the paddock, and the victory champagne will be replaced by a carbonated non-alcoholic beverage called "warrd" that the drivers may actually drink rather than spray. Nor will you find the paddock packed with scantily clad Page Three models. There will be a more decorous tone in a weekend where djellabas and yashmaks replace halter necks and skimpy shorts, in deference to the Islamic faith. As somebody said, you wouldn't want 18 races like this, but once a year novelty has its place.

The habitual titillation has been replaced by sand. There's plenty of it. Acres and acres of the stuff. And some of it, inevitably, is going to find its way on to the race track. The drivers, of course, will complain, but it might make things more interesting. "Whenever we get a situation where you get low levels of grip you tend to get better racing," the Williams engineer Frank Dernie observed tartly. "It might not be so much fun for the drivers, but it's a damn sight better for spectators."

Stories that the sand would be sprayed with a special glue to stop it blowing on to the circuit have been dismissed by His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who has enthusiastically embraced Grand Prix motorsport. Sighing heavily when the matter was raised at a recent function, he observed: "People think we don't know about sand ... All we have done is put a slightly heavier grit in the mix."

"There is only a problem if we have a southerly wind," added Philippe Gurdjian, Ecclestone's "fixer" who has been on site since 11 January ensuring that everything goes smoothly. "We are scheduled to have a northerly wind all weekend, so we should be OK."

Button does not see the sand causing problems. "I went round the track this morning. It's changed a bit since I was here last October, when it was a building site with just the main straight laid. It's dirty, sure, but in that respect it's the same, if not better, than Brazil or Hungary."

The 24-year-old Englishman is still bubbling after his first podium finish with third place in Malaysia a fortnight ago, and believes he will be as competitive again this weekend. "There's no reason it shouldn't happen. Our car works well on circuits like this, and it's a mixture of those in Australia and Malaysia. Plus we found some extra time in the chassis set-up during testing in France last week and we have a new rear suspension.

"It's not as humid here as in Malaysia, where the race was really tough. Having done it once, it will be less of a problem. This is not just a great facility in general, but a terrific circuit layout. They've done a superb job here, and they should be proud of themselves."

With seven heads of state visiting over the weekend, however, security forces are on red alert. The last time that Formula One raced in an Arabic country, Button was several years off being even a twinkle in father John's eye. But one man who has poignant memories of that occasion, the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix in Casablanca, is Ecclestone. He was the close friend and manager of Stuart Lewis-Evans, the slim young Briton whose remarkable pace against Stirling Moss and his highly rated team-mate Tony Brooks made him the Button of his era. As the junior on the three-man Vanwall team Lewis-Evans had to make do not just with what Moss, as leader, had discarded, but with what Brooks left over too. Yet in qualifying on the fast Ain Diab circuit he had been third quickest, only half a second slower than Moss.

Over 53 gruelling laps of the 7.618km circuit Moss triumphed in his British Racing Green Vanwall, beating arch-rival Mike Hawthorn. Such was the speed of Moss's victory that he lapped faster than he had in qualifying. Back then the cars had their engines ahead of the drivers and the only attention paid to aerodynamics was to reduce drag, not generate the car's weight in downforce. But there is a common link with the modern era.

A Ferrari driver - Hawthorn - was the world champion. But in the inaugural season of the world championship for constructors, Vanwall reigned supreme. Moss, the winner of four races to Hawthorn's one (and Brooks's three) that year, finished runner-up by a mere point. It was the closest he would ever get to the elusive crown. Hawthorn, Britain's first champion, would be dead within three months, killed in his roadgoing Jaguar in an accident on the Hog's Back in Surrey.

Sadly, Lewis-Evans crashed on the 42nd lap as he slid off the road on oil. The car caught fire and he died six days later from his injuries after being airlifted home to the East Grinstead Burns Unit by the team owner, Tony Vandervell. A Moroccan nurse who accompanied the driver on his last trip wrote to Vandervell telling of his bravery and fortitude. With heavy heart Vandervell had to inform her by letter: "Our brave young friend died on October 25th."

Though Vandervell had a reputation for being grumpy and autocratic, Lewis-Evans's death weighed heavily on his conscience. In the very hour of Vanwall's greatest triumph, he took the decision to disband his team. An era thus ended, but Vandervell's legacy ensured that British engineering remains at the forefront of Formula One.

"Stuart would have loved all this," Ecclestone reflected quietly yesterday. "He'd probably have won the race! The difference is that the facilities here are so brilliant. Now you can have any kind of operation in the hospital here. Back then he had 70 per cent burns, and they just wrapped a blanket round him and sat him in a chair. Times change..."


* Track took 16 months to construct and cost $150m (£85m)

* More than 3,000 people worked on the project at its peak

* Circuit required 70,000 cubic metres of concrete and 8,500 tons of steel

* 82,000 tyres used for safety walls

* 5,000m of FIA-approved fencing

* 45,000 capacity with grandstand seating for 10,000

* 13,000 car-parking spaces

* Special two-lane access road built to link city of Manama to track

* Track length 3.3 miles (5.4km), with 15 corners

* Race distance 191.8 miles (308km)

* Start-finish straight 1,090m

* 500 track marshals will be on duty (including officials from Australia, Austria and France)

* Air temp 30C+

* Track temp 50C+