As the winter chill and gloom starts to set in to more northerly countries and snow takes hold on the ground, people's thoughts there tend to wander towards vacationing in more sunny climes; of lying on a beach, book in hand, the sun warming their bodies with the soft sound of rolling tides lapping the sand. Ahhh, bliss.
And some have other ideas of vacation bliss; some need a bit more adrenalin. And a lot more noise.
The UAE has become a hotspot (excuse the pun) for Europeans seeking a winter respite in the last few years, but this group collected at Yas Marina Circuit is a little different than the usual tourists. The 27 people, from various countries such as Switzerland, Russia, Denmark and Kazakhstan, have flown in to Abu Dhabi for the Ducati Riding Experience (DRE), the Italian motorcycle maker's own riding school. These riders, who spent almost US$3,000 (Dh11,020) for the privilege, will spend the next two days pushing themselves and these sleek, red Ducati 1199 Panigales around the entire Grand Prix circuit with the help of expert instructors.
It is the first time the DRE will be hosted outside of Europe and the first time motorcycles will ride the whole Yas circuit under the lights. The idea came from both Ducati headquarters and Marcel Bode, the general manager of the two Ducati dealerships in the UAE. The brand launched its latest superbike, the Panigale, at an international journalist event at Yas in February, which sparked the idea in Bode.
"After the 1199 launched," he explains, "it was a success we tried to build on the positive effect we had with Yas, because normally they don't do a lot with motorcycles. We had an idea with Ducati to try it, see if it works."
Yeah, it seemed to have worked. There was already interest in the event from a group of Swiss riders, and then Ducati put an invitation on its website. "We had more than 400 inquiries," says Roberto Regan, the director of the brand. "Of that, maybe 200 or more would have come out. It was very surprising for us."
On this day, dusk has fallen and the group is suiting up in gaudy coloured leathers; the weather is just cool enough to make it comfortable, with a gentle breeze blowing down the pit lane where the three rows of bikes are parked. Before the ride, we are briefed by Dario Marchetti; he's head of the nine instructors here, all former champions in some form of motorcycle racing. The bald Marchetti is enigmatic and entertaining as he goes through the track details in his thick Italian accent. His warning on one of the turns around the Yas Viceroy Hotel is light-hearted but to the point: "If you want-a to go into the hotel, use-a the front door; don't make a door through the wall," he says with a twinkle.
We are all divided into groups of three or four, each led by an instructor. Mine will be David James, a former sidecar racer and now Ducati's international media manager; he used to instruct full-time until taking over the press duties, but he was drawn back into teaching with this Abu Dhabi trip. "I was here for the Panigale launch but I never rode the track," he says. "I couldn't pass this up."
It's our turn out, and we climb on the bikes and start the engines. The sound of a Ducati's twin-cylinder engine is unlike any bike: a throaty and raspy burble at idle, a full-on deep, bellowing roar at speed. We take it relatively slow this first 20-minute session, concentrating on the first few corners of the track. It's my first time getting tutelage at this medium level, and I'm not quite getting the hang of leaning off the bike; I really, really want to scrape my knee, that quintessential skill that every track-day biker aspires to. In the pits, James shows me how to position my body on - or more accurately, off - the bike for our next session later.
The two others in my group are Bode and Martin Jermiin, who travelled from Denmark for these two nights at Yas. He's done a couple of track schools and also does his own track days on his Ducati 998, but still wants to hone his skills.
"I found out about this class by looking into the California Bike School here [another motorcycle school that is run by Bode]. But I don't have a bike here and I didn't want to ship mine. I was in touch with Marcel and he told me about the Ducati event. I didn't even know about it until he told me.
"Europe is basically shut now for biking, and I also have a business meeting in Dubai this week, so I thought I'd take some vacation for this."
It's the seasonal shift, among other things, that Bode thinks would help make this type of event an annual success here in Abu Dhabi.
"What I proposed to Ducati as a spinoff to this event, during the winter when there is little motorcycling in Europe, we can go November till February here. For us as a local operator, this is a big investment [the dealership supplied all 14 bikes]. But we look at it long term, as developing our brand and interest in motorcycles.
"For this product it's definitely a Yas product. It's a unique venue, it's unique to be here. It's got five-star hotels right here, it's perfect."
Ducati in the UAE is on the move; on top of the international Panigale launch, it's just opened a huge shop in Musaffah, the second one after the Dubai location in Motor City. Bode says the plans for next year will include opening a cafe next to the Musaffah shop with bike storage and shower facilities, creating what he calls a "lifestyle centre". And the dealership manager has even more ideas for the region.
"My aim is to bring a fully branded riding school and to start licensing for the street.
"The standard of learning to ride here is appalling, and it actually stops us from selling bikes and getting people into motorcycling. I'd like to have a school based at Yas that can teach people and license them for the road.
"And if we have a branded school, then probably the customer will come into our products."
James briefs our group before the next session; the friendly, subdued and bespectacled Englishman is very patient with us. He doesn't seem like the type of man who hangs off a sidecar motorcycle at 300kph, but his performance on the track proves otherwise. During our next session, I try what he's suggested and hang off the side of the bike into turns; I'm farther down but still no knee-dragging. In fact, I get so exhausted during the session that I have to come in early; I'm obviously doing something wrong, and James again goes over positioning with me later.
We spend the next two sessions getting faster and faster; the 1199 is clearly far beyond my own feeble capabilities. It's just so nuanced and smooth in the corners, with excellent feel through the handlebars. And that engine; oh my. On the straights, as I hit 7,000rpm, it jumps to an even higher level of fury and rage, rocketing me faster and faster and seemingly not ever wanting to stop. The back "straight", which is actually a long curve, is particularly harrowing, as the support pit wall looms awfully quickly through the Perspex windscreen with the bike's acceleration.
At the end of the night, I'm exhausted from both physical exertion and the thrills of the ride; yet, I'm somewhat disappointed; my knee pucks remain unscathed, a shameful testament to my inability to get the bike low enough in the corners. I'll obviously need more practice. But overall, it's been a valuable learning experience and extremely fun, in the fact that the event gives an opportunity to push your riding skills on one of the best motorcycles in the world in a safe and controlled environment. The rest of the riders seem equally satisfied, and they are all just as exhausted. After this "vacation", they may need to spend some time on a beach after all.