SINGAPORE // When the Formula One cars roar to life here tomorrow, there will be one member of the crowd who must be among the most dedicated fans, having spent hundreds of thousands of dirhams in pursuit of his passion. Spencer Lodge flew from his home in Dubai on Thursday on a 5,826km trek to catch the action in time for the practice races. And he did not go alone.
Mr Lodge, 39, who owns an investment advisory company, took 30 employees with him as an incentive. Including this trip, he estimates he has personally already spent more than Dh400,000 (US$109,000) this season following F1 around the world. "I have been a fan ever since I was little," he said. "My dad used to take me to [the UK tracks] Brands Hatch and Silverstone from the age of five and it has become something of an obsession.
"For some people, it is Louboutins or holidays; for me, Formula One is my thing. That is what I spend my money on and what gets me out of bed every day. "It is hard to put into words why it is such an obsession, but when you hear a Formula One car it is like nothing you've ever heard in your life. It's infectious. When you hear 20 cars on the grid it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end."
Mr Lodge has already been to Australia, Malaysia, Monaco, Belgium and Italy this season. Once he has ticked off Singapore and Abu Dhabi, he will be able to count seven championships this year. He once attended all 16 races in a season but admitted it had been "draining". In Abu Dhabi he is hoping to recruit a third generation of fans by taking his two daughters, aged seven and 10, for the first time.
Mr Lodge, who was born in the UK, said: "It is going to be electric in Abu Dhabi. Even people who do not support F1 will be there. It is fantastic after all these years to have it on home turf and there was no way I was going to miss it while living in the UAE. "There are three venues in the world that are the best to watch Formula One: Montreal, Monaco and Singapore - the last two because they are both in the city and take over the streets, so you can walk from your hotel into the thick of it.
"But Abu Dhabi will be exciting because it is the first time and because it will host the first day-night race. F1 is the pinnacle of motor sports. It has a competitive side to it and has quite a glamorous air about it with the clubs and parties." He is not the only diehard fan prepared to cross continents to follow favourite drivers, and Abu Dhabi can expect its share. With just two races left after tomorrow before the roadshow rolls into the capital, excitement is mounting. According to tourism and racing officials behind Singapore's F1 extravaganza, Abu Dhabi should brace itself. The event promises to have a huge effect on visitor numbers, shops, restaurants and investment for years.
Rostam Umar, the director of communications for the Singapore Tourism Board, said: "We see Formula One as more than just sport, it is about entertainment. "There is a whole package of events which enhance the host venue as a destination. It pays off because visitors during the Grand Prix stay longer, spend up to three times more than the average tourist and are more likely to return the following year.
"Abu Dhabi is up-and-coming but until now has been viewed as the poor relation to Dubai, which is seen as a more lively, vibrant place. This will help make the city more high-profile and visible. "What we have seen here will be mirrored in Abu Dhabi in terms of getting visitors to come in, not just for the races, but for the spin-off effect on businesses. "The most significant advantage is that it puts a global spotlight on the whole city which you simply cannot buy in terms of advertising.
"People around the world will be tuning in to watch on television and seeing the host venue highlighted as a destination. That is something you cannot put a price on." A total of 100,000 spectators poured into Singapore in 2008, spending 168m Singapore dollars (Dh435m) and booking the equivalent of 180,000 hotel nights. In Abu Dhabi as many as 50,000 fans will see drivers roaring around the Dh5 billion Yas Marina track when the green light signals the start of the circuit's first race.
But Singapore tourism experts warned that the UAE may not be prepared for the full onslaught of spectators and visitors expecting to be entertained. While Singapore began its publicity drive in June, its Middle Eastern counterpart has only just announced that Beyoncé and Aerosmith will be playing concerts and has yet to confirm the rest of the entertainment package. "It has been a bit quiet on the Abu Dhabi front," said Ranita Sundra, Singapore tourism board's assistant director of entertainment.
"How successful the event is depends on how much excitement you can drive up among the local audience even before you invite in visitors as it gives a sense of vibrancy." This weekend a team from Abu Dhabi Municipality is in Singapore looking to learn lessons from another host city, as well as researching the best ways to police the event. Richard Goddard, the manager of Jenson Button, the British driver currently leading the Formula One championship ahead of his Brazilian rival Rubens Barrichello, said: "We have already been to Abu Dhabi to look at the circuit.
"We could not believe how many people were involved in the construction and the sheer size of it. It is one of the best in the world. "The scale of the track alone was unbelievable. We were driven round by the project manager and it was not even finished then but it was still amazing." email@example.com