Wheeling and dealing at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is one of four elite F1 races able to attract the 'best-of-breed' chief execs from around the world - meaning big sponsorship deals will be in the offing.

Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso lead the drivers ahead of the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year. Christopher Pike / The National

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Lewis Hamilton is not the only one gearing up for this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

A convoy of chief executives are expected to descend on the UAE capital, with the knowledge that big business and sponsorship deals – like the F1 championship title itself – are all up for grabs.

High-flying global executives regard the Abu Dhabi race as one of the most important events on the social calendar, motorsport experts say.

And as Hamilton fights to keep his lead over Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, the Paddock will be the place for some high-octane networking sessions.

“It’s one of the most important business races of the season,” says Clive Richards, senior vice president for partnership development at JMI.

JMI, a marketing agency, helps manage motorsports campaigns for companies like Unilever, UPS and Subway. It also helps to broker sponsorship deals between brands and the F1 series and teams, as well as other motorsport events such as the Nascar and MotoGP.

According to Mr Richards, the Abu Dhabi event is one of four elite F1 races that are especially attractive to global executives.

“The Singapore Grand Prix, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Monaco and the British Grand Prix are races that really stand out as being able to attract the best-of-breed chief execs from around the world,” he says.

Tim Bampton, senior vice president of marketing communications at JMI, says the Abu Dhabi F1 has become part of the annual travel agenda for many global executives with networking at such events a great way to “fast-track” business deals.

And the Abu Dhabi race is also expected to result in a spike in brands’ F1 marketing campaigns within UAE malls and on social media, Mr Bampton adds.

“It’s significant as it’s the last race of the season, and that the championship is undecided,” he says. “This will be the last shot in a lot of the [marketing] campaigns … There will be a lot of activity at the track; there will be a lot of retail activity from a number of consumer brands. And there will be a huge spike in social media from every part of the sport – brands, teams, drivers, fans.”

Middle Eastern companies linked to F1 include Etihad Airways, which has been the title sponsor of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix since the first race in 2009. Rival Emirates Airline, which is based in Dubai, in 2013 signed a five-year sponsorship of the sport in a deal reportedly worth around US$200 million. The Dubai real estate companies Emaar and Pacific Ventures both sponsor F1 teams, while Gulf Air is the title sponsor of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Mr Richards says that the sponsorship campaigns around the Abu Dhabi race will be worth “tens of millions” of dollars, attracting notably bigger budgets than other F1 events.

“Most of the big brands will choose to plug more money into the Abu Dhabi race,” he says.

“There will be brands that are partnering with the teams that are doing driver appearances in Abu Dhabi and possibly Dubai,” he says. “They will all be fighting for airtime in the run-up to and during the race. It is not a race where brands hold back.”

While JMI does not have any Middle Eastern clients yet, Mr Richards says he sees greater interest in F1 among regional companies. “We’re certainly confident that we’ll have clients from the region. There are plenty of meaningful discussions and negotiations that are going on.”

Because it is the closing race of the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will also be the venue for ongoing talks about the renegotiation of further F1 sponsorship deals, Mr Richards adds.

“Teams are trying to secure renewals for next season, they’re trying to bring in new partners,” he explains.

Donal Kilalea, chief executive of Promoseven sports marketing, agrees that marketing activities around the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have been “aggressive”, pointing to the worldwide exposure given to brands such as Etihad.

It’s also a hive of activity in terms of business networking, with companies spending millions entertaining guests from around the world, he adds.

“F1 is an international sport and it’s certainly known as a sport where hospitality is done very professionally. And it allows companies to bring in guests to build business relationships.”

But despite the business and sponsorship deals on the table – all eyes will be on the race as the F1 drivers assemble on the grid.

“It could go either way – Rosberg or Hamilton could be the world champions,” adds Mr Kilalea. “It will be an exciting race.”


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