Before the 2004 season, there was very little Arab influence in Formula One. Motorsport as a whole had been quite Europe and North America focused. As the Middle East region began to grow rapidly in the early 2000s, so did Arabian influence in Formula One. It has been a gradual process, but we are seeing the impact of Arabs increasing in Formula One.
History of Arabs involvement in the sport
In the 20th century, Arab involvement in motorsport was very minimal. There were no races held in the Middle East and no Arab drivers. But 2004 was a defining year, with Bahrain becoming the first Middle Eastern circuit to stage a Formula One race. Since then, Bahrain has hosted 15 Formula One races and has been on the calendar every season since 2011.
In 2020, the track even held two Formula One races thanks to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. But Bahrain is now not the only race held in the Middle East. In the 2022 season, there will be three races in the Middle East, where Arab fans will be out in full force. This will increase to four for the 2023 season, with F1 signing a deal to race in Qatar until 2033.
While races became new to the Middle East, the Arab influence has been in Formula One for over 45 years. When Frank Williams founded the Williams Racing team in 1977, he put the Saudi Airlines logo onto his F1 car for the 1977 season. It meant that the Saudi Arabian Royal family had a vested interest in Formula One and were guests at the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix.
It was at this race that Mansour Ojjeh was introduced to Formula One. The race turned Ojjeh into a big Formula One fan and he wanted to expand his business in the sport. For the 1979 season, Ojjeh brokered a deal for the TAG Group to be the principal sponsor of the Williams team.
This investment turned out to be very beneficial for both parties. Williams won two championships in 1980 and 1982. In the middle of these two championship, Ojjeh met McLaren CEO Ron Dennis and the two became business partners. Ojjeh purchased a majority stake in the McLaren Group.
During his majority ownership of McLaren, the team won seven constructors championships and nine drivers championships. Ojjeh was the owner of McLaren during their most successful period. He sold most of these shares in 2000, before buying them back in 2010. As the teams performances dipped, his relationship with Dennis deteriorated and Ojjeh sold his shares in McLaren in 2017.
He was still a crucial element of McLaren success in Formula One and his role in F1 may have been a quiet one, but Ojjeh was crucial in championships for two different British Formula One teams. He was also crucial in Formula One becoming much more involved in the Middle East.
His influence does make it even stranger that Formula One did not take advantage of the Middle East sooner. The region clearly has vast resources and many of the richest Arab families have been attracted to the excitement and glamour of Formula One. One part of the reason for this is that motorsport as a whole has not had the biggest audience in Formula One.
But one type of motorsport that has had an audience in the Middle East is rallying. The Middle East Rally Championship was formed in 1984 and you have probably heard of its most successful driver. F1 may have only first heard of Mohammed Ben Sulayem in December of 2021 when he was appointed as the President of the FIA, but he has been involved in F1 for much longer.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem had an incredibly successful rallying career, winning 60 wins in the Middle East Rally Championship. After his racing career, he was appointed as the first Arab Vice President of the FIA in 2008, as well as being elected to the FIA World Motor Sport Council.
Sulayem played a crucial role in Abu Dhabi becoming the season finale at Yas Marina Circuit after first joining the championship in 2009. In his role he made sure to emphasise teaching and research. The role clearly suited him and Sulayem was liked by his peers. It was these same peers who elected him as president of the FIA in 2021, replacing Jean Todt.
With all of this influence off the track, it may be very surprising to hear that there has never been an Arab Formula One driver. It is pretty shocking thing to hear particularly with four races in the Middle East in 2023. With Formula One’s influence continuing in the sport, this will surely change soon, with karting superstar Rashid Al Dhaheri looking likely to break into a Formula One team at some point in the future.