Written by Kanzah Maktoum, Edited by Sameena Khan
Engines roared to life, the ground shook at its sheer power, and the five starting lights went out. The cars raced at 300 kph down the main straight, and the Qatar inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix was underway at the Lusail International Circuit in 2021.
Over a year later, Red Bull's F1 car took the Lusail Boulevard in a motorsport event on the 22nd of February. Before such an international event, rallying and drifting championships were the mainstays of the Qatari motorsport scene, frequently staged at the Qatar Racing Club with the addition of the FIM MotoGP. However, Qatar is undoubtedly venturing into new motorsport categories, with the circuit hosting the F1 race for an additional ten years starting in 2023 and WEC (World Endurance Championship) from 2024.
The Lusail International Circuit, a staple MotoGP venue since 2004, hosted the lowest-attended race in 2022 with 17,972 total spectators. Due to this, there were worries regarding the Formula 1 Grand Prix's turnout. However, the inaugural race boasted 80,000 attendees over three days. While the turnout was more than expected, organizers are still concerned about retention. Sajin Salim, a scrutineer at events held by Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF), said, "The interest has grown because of shows such as Drive to Survive on Netflix…The attendance [for MotoGP] hasn't been great, like as much as we expected to see or as much as what we see from other races [around the world]."
More could be done to increase the culture around the sport with additional events. Abdulaziz Al Mohannadi is a motorsport fan who has attended multiple F1 Grand Prix events worldwide. He said, "In Abu Dhabi, it is like a one-week event. They used to bring famous singers, there was a concert, and they were more interactive." The season finale in Abu Dhabi hosts the Yasalam After-Race Concert with several award-winning artists like Usher and Kendrick Lamar, British rapper Dave, and the house music band Swedish House Mafia.
The Abu Dhabi event also had five designated fan zones with interactive activities, stage performances, and game zones. Ticket-holders could also attend one of the four parks, which include Ferrari World. "A lot of people don't come just because of the racing. They want to see a spectacle," Salim said. "So our team is asking the same question- Will it [Qatar Grand Prix] be as hyped up as Saudi or Abu Dhabi?"
The circuit is being renovated to improve F1 racing, as it costs teams financially. In 2021, Formula 1 teams noted that cars were getting damaged because of the track's high curbs, initially designed to keep MotoGP in mind. Salim said, "Throughout the weekend, the under panels (of the car) were changed many times, and an under panel…is worth 200 grand." According to Salim, the paddock and grandstands will also be renovated to improve the experience.
With the proper promotion and investment, Qatar has the potential to be the epicenter of the Middle Eastern racing scene. Abdullah Al-Mohtaseb is a Jordanian racer who frequently participates in the Qatar Drift Championship as part of the Brothers Team for Drift. He explained that racing is a relatively expensive sport, and those who are passionate may only sometimes have the means to pursue it. Therefore, Al- Mohtaseb urged investment not only in events but in drivers as well. "I'm inviting the private companies to make part of their planning to support the people who like this kind of sport."
Qatari motorsport athletes are also gaining more popularity. Nasser Al-Attiyah recently won his fifth Dakar Rally driver's title and was announced as an ambassador of Qatar Tourism after the World Cup. Al Attiyah is also sponsored by Red Bull and joins the list of prominent Red Bull athletes like two-time Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen, Olympic medallist snowboarder Scotty James, and Liverpool Football Club player Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Yousef Almulla, another fan, said, "Many young Qataris are a fan of cars and motorsports in general. Nasser Al Attiyah, for example, has a lot of fans in Qatar because he has some exposure here."
With Qatar's successful hosting of the FIFA 2022 World Cup, it has shown its mettle in hosting international events. However, promotion and attendance of motorsport events could be much higher, especially in Arabic, which is the local language. Almulla said, "We have the events. We just need the people to come to them.
The state also drove up excitement with a live motorsport demonstration at Lusail Boulevard on the 22nd of February. Al Mohannadi said, "If we have more of this show run with Formula One cars driving around the street…very close to the fans, this will definitely help a lot instead of just Instagram and billboards." Red Bull, a brand known for its PR campaigns, was a major attraction at the event. Multiple F1 race winner, David Coulthard, took their Formula 1 car to the streets of Lusail along with a MotoGP bike driven by Dani Pedrosa.
The WEC hypercar also appeared to drive up interest for the championship season opener, which Qatar will host in 2024. At the event, Qatar Airways announced a multi-year partnership with Formula 1, sponsoring three F1 races in the 2023 season.
Qatar is not lacking events but rather exposure. The state's push for more international events will expand the existing motorsport scene. If improvements are made around the culture of the sport, Qatar has the potential to be a landmark motor-racing country.