Story by Vickie Miller. Photo by Serena Panzeri

While Bahrain was never on my vacation bucket list, when I saw the last WEC race on the 2015 season would be at Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), I was intrigued. Late summer, I started planning to attend with my friend, Serena who was my driver for the weekend and provided the Strakka Racing car photograph used in this article. We picked a hotel, reserved a rental car, booked flights landing within an hour of each other, applied for a travel VISA, and started to get excited.

Here’s the racing recap. While I booked my race trip with WEC in mind, I was very happy to learn I would finally get the opportunity to meet a long-time Facebook and Twitter friend, Howard English, who is head mechanic for the MRF Championship racing series. Howard and I also share a mutual friend, Oswaldo “Ozz” Negri.

While understandably, there is basically no coverage of the MRF racing series in the United States, I encourage you to learn more from the series website. One current driver who caught my attention was Pietro Fittipaldi, who podiumed at Bahrain. According to Wikipedia, Freddie Hunt, son of Formula One champion James Hunt and Mathias Lauda, son of Formula One champion Niki Lauda both competed in the series. According to Vickipedia, MRF Racing is very exciting. You can learn more from the series Twitter and website: @MRF_Racing

With eight races in the 2015 WEC series, the excitement builds knowing the championship title will be determined in the last race and in the last few laps. At the time, I never realized the LMP1 championship would be so intense heading into the final circuits.

Unless you have no soul, and regardless which LMP1 team you were cheering for, you held your breath as the Porsche 919 Hybrid car came into the pits and pulled into the garage with just minutes left to go in the race. The on-board camera showed Mark Webber sitting in the car, helpless. While I am sure Webber was giving his crew as much information he could regarding the cars handling, he looked dejected.

Before long the car was back on track but still showing signs of further issues. As they struggled to keep to what appeared to be minimum speed, the uncaring clock mercilessly ticked on. No movie producer in Hollywood could have written a more exciting race conclusion.

Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Webber won the championship and ending up finishing fifth in the Bahrain race. While I took my spot on the photographer perch to view the podium celebration, below I spotted Webber with a smile so big and bright, the envy of every dentist. Webber was trying to make his way through the crowd only to be stopped by many people with hugs and congratulations.

With the retirement announcement of Alexander Wurz, I was glad he ended his racing career with a podium, coming in third with teammates Stephane Sarrazin and Mike Conway in the Toyota TS Hybrid.

With the sun beginning to set about 5pm local time, the majority of the race and the evening practice sessions were in the night or what for most tracks would be dark. The BIC is very well lit, until the plug was pulled during the evening session causing a 15-minute delay.

While I’m not an expert on taking night photos, the bright lights covered the track from every angle and so intense that my photo background was all a sparkle. I tried to stand outside turn one to capture the red glow of the brakes as cars head into the turn, but again with the brightest of the track, the glow was difficult to capture.

The heat was a factor on the tires. After the sun set, the temperature and track did cool down, however the dust was not settling. Tires were worn terribly with the constant pounding over grinding bits of sand. I talked to one engineer who mentioned that one year the team forgot to clear coat one of the fender panels before running at Bahrain and by the time the car returned after a practice session, the dust had scratched the paint completely off.

As with most race weekends, there are a number of support series also in attendance. Along with WEC and MRF Racing were GP2, GP3 and Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge. With the support series occupying separate sets of garages and having their own pit/paddock area, the WEC autograph session and fan walk were held in the traditional style in front of the garage trackside.

When I view the WEC race schedule, one topic always came to mind, “How do the cars travel to the different counties?”

At BIC, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Barclay Danaher (photo above), the engineer and responsible for the logistics at Strakka Racing.

Here is what I learned and I hope you find it interesting. The race car is loaded assembled, with the fuel and water drained and the battery removed and marked as hazardous. Once the team arrives to each circuit, such items as cleaning fluids/liquids must be purchased locally and cannot be shipped due to being considered hazardous materials.

Every piece of equipment including team radios must be numbered, inventoried and recorded on declaration/custom forms. DHL is the shipping provider for the WEC series. DHL handles any customs issues to ensure all is delivered to the circuit in time for the race weekend.

Basically each team is given a huge container to creatively pack, adhering to safety and hazardous materials regulations, with their equipment. If the team requires additional containers, then the team is billed on weight. So I assumed the container was fork lifted to each team’s garage back door for loading, and I didn’t consider removing the container once full. As a result of the weight once loaded, the team is responsible to haul everything to the parking lot or designated area where the container is located.

The WEC series cars traveled from Fuji to Shanghai to Bahrain by boat not returning to Silverstone between these races. Due to the tight time between Nurburgring and Circuit of the Americas, the cars/containers were air freighted. After the Bahrain race, the team will load up the container for the final boat ride of the season. The crew expect to receive the container in their Silverstone home and shop location by middle of January. This provides the crew a little relax time to get refreshed to hit 2016 with a bang!

If you follow me on Twitter, I bet you have wondered, “Why is she always Tweeting about Strakka Racing?” Well, here is the deal. From birth, I am a Cleveland Browns fan. Still wondering? Except for a couple good results, over the past 50+ years, many including myself consider the Cleveland Browns the “underdog” in any game.

In the LMP2 category, being an American, I do cheer for ESM Racing, but I first noticed Strakka Racing at Silverstone. Since the race shop is very near to the Silverstone track, much was mentioned about the “hometown” team which captured my attention. Plus the Gibson Nissan car is sharp!

To me, it appears LMP2 is in the shadows of the “big boys” of LMP1. There are several LMP2 teams with big budgets, bigger named drivers who receive the attention, which results in Strakka Racing being the one-car team underdog, but this dog has a bite! I watched Strakka Racing at Silverstone Circuit and Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and met driver Danny Watts at LeMans.

Also at LeMans, the Strakka Racing public relations chief, Nick Bailey, had the misfortunate of occupying the seat next to me in the media center. He was gracious enough to answer my questions regarding the weekend media activities. There are many drivers and teams who lose my support simply due to being rude.
2015 has been a mixed year with Strakka Racing with the races I attended the results were fourth at Silverstone, sixth at Spa, seventh at COTA, and sixth at Bahrain. During the off season I encourage you to check out Strakka Racing and the team. Please consider giving them a follow and watch them come out fighting at the season opener 2016 WEC race in Silverstone! And a big thank you to all who RT my Strakka tweets and already follow.

Driver: Danny Watts @wattsracing
Danny Watts on his helmet
Danny Watts at LeMans
Meet driver: Jonny Kane
Meet driver: Nick Leventis

The day after race day, Sunday, was a rookie testing day and Strakka Racing hosted Lewis Williamson.
Please take a moment to meet Lewis and you are welcomed to follow him on Twitter @lewis__17

Team: Strakka Racing competes in Formula Renault 3.5V with two cars. Strakka Racing website and Facebook
Strakka Racing also has a karting team with European Champion Tom Joyner as a driver

Big thank you to Nick Bailey @elan_nick
Here’s the city recap. Bahrain is a desert. While obviously Bahrain is hot (not COTA hot), windy, and extremely dusty, I was unprepared for the city and track to be so clean. With the locations of Papa John’s, Dairy Queen, Roma’s Macaroni Grill, Cinnabon, and McDonald’s very abundant, I never noticed a discarded food container or plastic bottle laying on the sidewalk or in the street.

Sorry, no Starbuck’s which means Bahrain is missing the crisis of the red holiday cups. Also noticeably absent was graffiti littering the walls and buildings, which probably the local government controls any public messaging.

Driving was interesting and I was glad I wasn’t doing it. A car is always honking at another for seeming no reason. Heavily protected Police cars continue to sit by the side of the road as drivers speed by. The majority of all signs are written both in English and Arabic.

Here’s the circuit recap. With the local royal family ensuring BIC is a first class facility, the circuit is designed smartly with attention to detail. First, it’s clean, yes I mentioned that but it bears repeating. I had been told the race would have a low attendance. I arrived to the track on Thursday, which was not open to the public, but Friday didn’t see much increase in fan numbers.

By race day Saturday, it appeared more people attended the grid walk just prior to the race start than fans in the front stretch grandstands. By race end, it felt the teams were racing for television and media in attendance. There were some billboards throughout the city advertising the WEC weekend, and with Formula One racing at BIC, local fans were well aware of the circuit. While I heard theories, I’m still unsure as to the “true” reason for low attendance.

Second, everyone is friendly. To be honest, I did not know much about this island country which is located between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both countries which bring various negative thoughts to mind. I flew just weeks after the Egypt plane crash and a few days after the Paris tragedy, both of which gave me pause but the thought was never there to cancel.

This was my first time traveling to this part of the world and some of my first impressions of the people range from subtle to bizarre. First to the bizarre. Yes, in my travels I have seen the occasional man in “sheikh” clothing and women in burqas but I was not prepared to see two gentlemen walking around the airport sporting a hawk on their arm! How cool is that?

For the first few hours upon arrival, my traveling friend had the patience to hear me constantly repeat, “I want a hawk!” I was not sure of proper courtesy but got the firm sense a photograph opportunity would be totally out of the question. I longed for Jordan Taylor sneaky iPhone photography skills, and thought of the story he would create.
The subtle but omnipresent is the sense of a class system. I picked up on watching women walking behind the men and other visual cues. While at the airport security and boarding line, even though I was next, I was asked to wait while the man behind me was instructed to pass. I suppressed the desire to be vocal because I needed to board my plane.

I did not notice the male/female difference as much at the track. I felt more of an equal and treated very respectfully. At the track in the media center, all the staff serving food were quick to remove your dirty plate even before your fork was down. While it is automatic for me to say “thank you”, the server returned a facial expression of “Should you be talking to me?” Awkward and sad.

If you read my articles or follow me on Twitter, you know I attend many tracks, and everything at BIC was not perfect, but it’s close. The media shuttle buses were beyond outstanding. While waiting for an on-track session to start, I got to know the track workers and officials at turn one, which was a true highlight. I think they were just as intrigued by me as I was with them.

During the safety car pace laps before the green flag of the WEC race, the circuit speakers play the Rolling Stones song, “Start Me Up”, which the track workers and I both were lip synching and singing along! The world is very small sometimes. Of the places around the inside or outside of the circuit where I stopped, each turn had a minimum of five volunteer workers at all times.

While 2015 found me visiting new WEC circuits, one of the enjoyments is learning the history of the circuit and the unique turn names. I was disappointed to view the BIC map indicating turn numbers only with no printed turn names. I am sure drivers have their own names for a few turns.

The landscape around the track is predominately flat with dust being uncontrolled and seemed as the circuit surface served as a magnet to attract it all. Yes the support series would run laps which momentarily served to blow off the dust, which quickly returned. By mid-day, all you want is a shower to remove the dust you collected while out on the course.

With the travel weekend requiring six flights, a total of 36 hours of air travel time, the question is, would I return? I am truly unsure what the future holds, but I wouldn’t rule it out. And yes, I still want a hawk!
I had the pleasure to meet Jassim Albardooli, Manager – Media & Public Relations, for Bahrain International Circuit. For more information on the circuit, please check out the Twitter and website @BAH_Int_Circuit

Thank you all for reading and I welcome your comments. I have no affiliation with FIA WEC, Strakka Racing, MSF Racing, Bahrain International Circuit, etc. just a fan. There are many blogs and websites where you will find statistics, results, and scoring from the race; this is “just the way I see it”. Got a response? Follow and tweet me @viclovesracing