What a joy to watch Formula One big shots battle it out

By Gathenya Njaramba: Saturday, April 6th 2019 at 00:00 GMT +3 | Sports
Standard journalist Gathenya Njaramba [courtesy]

The racing track has cooled down after Lewis Hamilton outpaced Charles Leclerc in the Bahrain Grand Prix last weekend.

But many motorsport fans won’t forget how the 21-year-old Leclerc gave his more illustrious rivals a run for his money. The rookie from France, just in his second Formula 1 event, showed he will be a force to reckon.

With less than seven laps to go, his Ferrari engine developed problems and he saw his dream victory slip through his fingers. There was little he could do, but he held on to take third podium finish, after Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

From the fan’s stand, I could see his team hold their faces in disbelief and frustration. They too could not fathom how after leading in the qualifying races to grab pole position, Leclerc came just short in the final few laps. His Ferrari teammate and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel had dropped off to fifth place and he too could not save the day.

In the end, speed, power, experience and grit from Hamilton in his Mercedes carried the day.

Since its inception in 1950, the Federation Internationale de Automobile (FIA)-owned Formula 1 championship has become the most watched and expensive annual motorsport competition with 21 circuits in as many cities around the globe.

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F1 machines are the fastest regulated road racing cars on the planet and the modifications they undergo to be ready for competition could be likened to the apex of automotive engineering. From Juan Manuel Fangio (Argentina), Alain Prost (France), Jim Clark (Great Britain), Niki Lauda (Austria), Sir Jackie Stewart (Great Britain) and arguably the greatest of all time, Aryton Senna (Brazil) to modern legends such as record titleholder, Michael Schumacher (Germany), Lewis Hamilton (Britain) and Sebastian Vettel (Germany), Formula 1 has given its share of global sporting icons in seven decades.

It was, therefore, a life time opportunity to experience the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix at the immaculate Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir. I was part of a team put together by SportPesa, which was making their first participation in the Bahrain circuit. SportPesa, a successful Kenyan gaming company, had two drivers in the leg, Mexico's Sergio Perez and Canadian Lance Stroll. Perez finished in 10th position while Stroll was 20th on the final log of 20 drivers, which is no mean feat.

Manama, the capital city of the Persian Gulf nation, made history in 2004 by hosting the first Formula 1 leg in the Middle East. This year, over 200,000 fans watched the races over the three days from the stands. I caught up with a Kenyan fan Walter Opiyo from Kisumu who said Formula 1 makes his life tick. He travels around the world for the thrill of speed and the science that go into taking part in F1.

“To watch Formula 1 on TV is exciting, but to be part of the experience on the track, fan zones and the many merchandise booths is even more mind-blowing,” he told me as we walked across the paddock, where the rich and famous watch the races.  On the cost, he said it is possible to save a coin by booking the air and circuit tickets early. “For instance, I spent less than Sh150,000 for this leg, which caters for air and circuit tickets and hotel accommodation,” he added as we enjoyed a drink. He is a die-hard Hamilton fan.

Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc (R) celebrates on the podium after placing third at the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix next to Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (first placed) at the Sakhir circuit in the desert south of the Bahraini capital Manama, on March 31, 2019. [AFP]

CHANCE TO MAKE FRIENDS

Formula 1 is also famous for it is a chance to make friends and possibly secure business deals. Cal Walters, a British fan said he goes for at least 10 races every year and he must watch from practice races, qualifying and the main event. “I need to watch until the checkered flag is raised on a Sunday. It isn’t the full F1 experience for me if I miss out on even one day,” he told SportPesa media team.  

I also bumped into Mika Hakkinen, the Finnish double world champion with McLaren in 1998 and 1999. The now retired driver, said F1 growth has been a phenomenon. “The circuits are more exciting and full of adrenalin. That is my sport and my life couldn’t be complete without F1,” he said.

The Bahrain circuit is known more for being a family event, where couples take their children out for other fan activities like a ride on the giant wheel or the giant merry-go-round. There is no alcohol on the stands, making it even better for teetotallers.

Now, Formula 1 is a huge team sport since behind every driver there are mechanics, logistics staff, tyre specialists, project coordinators, medical staff and other professionals. “It takes so much more than people see or even imagine.

"The level of dedication from everyone involved is crucial. This is more than a job to us, we have a passion for the sport and just knowing that we had a part to play in the team’s success is good enough,” Chris Gilkes from SportPesa Racing team, said.

After the traditional podium champagne splash and trophy presentation on Sunday night, I could not help but think of what it would take to bring Formula 1 to Kenya.

There is a huge local fan base demonstrated by hundreds of entertainment joints in Nairobi that host watching parties during F1 weekends. The financial injection into our economy is huge and help create jobs, but of course that is a long shot for Kenya.

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