This year's Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi will trigger a boom in interest in motorsport in the region and lead to long-lasting tourism benefits for the UAE, a trio of former Formula One drivers predicted. They also insisted it was right for F1 to venture into different parts of the world, even if it meant that some classic circuits no longer hosted Grands Prix; traditional hosts Canada and France are missing from this year's calendar.
Jean Alesi, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Johnny Herbert were at Dubai Autodrome over the weekend to compete in two races in the Speedcar Series, both won by Alesi. A round of next season's series, in which all drivers race 6.2-litre stock cars, is likely to be held as a support race to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Alesi, a former Ferrari and Benetton F1 driver, said the Abu Dhabi track on Yas Island would be on a par with the world's top circuits.
"They spend money very, very well here and now they have decided to have Formula One, they will make the best circuit for sure," said the 44-year-old Frenchman. The decision to bring the F1 circus to Abu Dhabi was good for the region and the sport, he said. "It's a very good window for the world because there's nothing better to promote the country, but at the same time it's a very good opportunity for Formula One to go to a modern part of the world."
Alesi conceded it was "a little bit" of a shame that circuits with considerable motorsport heritage were losing Grand Prix, but said the increase in enthusiasm for the sport seen in Bahrain after it began hosting a Grand Prix would be repeated in the UAE. "There is a big interest in motorsport and more people are following it," he said. "Formula One has to follow the progress of the countries." According to Frentzen, 41 - a former Grand Prix winner with the Williams and Jordan teams - the UAE will "for sure" receive benefits that extend beyond the race weekend, thanks to an elevated international profile and an increase in interest from holidaymakers.
"It is very good advertising," he said. "Formula One is not only a high-class motorsport, but is a tourism endorsement." Johnny Herbert, a Briton whose Grand Prix career included spells with Benetton, Lotus and Stewart and three race wins, said he too was looking forward to the UAE's first F1 race. "To have a Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi is very good because there's a lot of investment going into it," he said. "It's good to have Formula One somewhere where it's never been before."
Motorsport, he said, "develops and moves on", adding: "It is nice to have old classic race tracks, but they are still there and still used by other formulas." Given how close the past three F1 seasons had been, with the title decided in the last race, Herbert said it was "quite possible" the championship would still be open when Formula One rolled into the UAE for the Nov 1 race - the last of the 2009 season.