SINGAPORE // Walking around the Formula One paddock at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, it was quickly evident that, despite the 6,000 kilometres between the cities, talk of Abu Dhabi was as inescapable as the Singapore humidity. Amid one of the closest championship races in F1 history, team principals, drivers and motorsport commentators were all looking ahead to being at Yas Marina Circuit on November 14 for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
"It's very important, not just for Abu Dhabi, but for all of the grands prix that the championship goes down to the final race," said Sir Jackie Stewart, the Scotsman who won three world titles between 1969 and 1973. "To go down to the last race, it means that grand prix racing is going to be the centre of attention for so many different things. Every media element will be focused on the last race, so it will bring an enormous amount of attention to Abu Dhabi itself."
In less than seven weeks, the capital will host the calendar's season-ending race for the second successive year and the world championship crown is still waiting to be claimed. It would appear, at this stage at least, the three-day event on Yas Island will be decisive. "I'm sure it is going to go down to the last race, right down to the final few laps," said Lewis Hamilton, who won the drivers' championship in Brazil on the final day of the 2008 season.
Martin Whitmarsh, his team principal at McLaren-Mercedes, was in firm agreement: "I have no doubt it will go all the way to Abu Dhabi." Hamilton is one of five drivers still capable of claiming the 2010 title. Only 25 points separate Mark Webber, the championship leader, from fifth-placed Jenson Button, the Englishman who wears the No 1 on his McLaren car after securing the title last year with the now defunct Brawn GP.
Sandwiched in between are Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull-Renault, Abu Dhabi's first winner last November. Under the F1 points system, each race winner is awarded 25 points with the following nine fastest drivers picking up points of decreasing value. With a win the only thing separating first and fifth with only four races remaining, this year's title chase is being billed as one of the most exciting for almost 30 years.
And for a sport that has been hurt by several scandals in recent times and severely affected by the global economic downturn, it could hardly have arrived at a better time. "Everyone wants it to go to the final race, no question about it," Niki Lauda, another former world champion, said. "Let's hope the championship will be decided there because Abu Dhabi is one of the best new races on the calendar."
Understandably, those intrinsically involved with the UAE race are equally keen for the championship to reach its climax in the capital. Richard Cregan, the chief executive of Yas Marina Circuit, said this year's enthralling season deserves to go the distance. "It's been one of the most exciting seasons for many years and the most important aspect of that has been the real racing," Cregan said. "Drivers are really having a go, they are pushing the limits. We saw that with Lewis Hamilton in Singapore where he saw an opportunity and went for it.
"It looks like things are heading down to the wire and a possible championship decider in Abu Dhabi, which would be fantastic.There are so many great over-taking opportunities at Yas and if things go in that direction then we're all in for a great weekend of entertainment to round out the year." Vijay Mallya, the team principal of Force India, said regardless of Abu Dhabi's position on the F1 calendar, the UAE race will likely always feel special for his team.
"Every team has an emotional attachment to some country and obviously ours is India," he said. "It's clear everyone likes to see the tri-colour on the track and, like in Singapore, in Abu Dhabi there is such a vast population of Indians so we will be going there to try and perform well in front of them." However, with three races to go before the 12 teams make the trip to the Emirates, there remains a chance the championship could be decided before the cars line the grid in the UAE, like it was last year when Button secured the title in the second-last race in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Japan is host to the next race on October 8, followed by Korea two weeks later - provided the new track at Yeongam is completed in time - and Brazil on November 7. Just seven days later, the season will conclude in the Middle East. Some drivers have expressed concern about having to travel 11,500km in the final week of the season. Jarno Trulli, the veteran driver with Lotus Racing, said he expects the five weeks prior to the chequered flag on the last day to be more draining than the rest of the season.
"It's not actually the race itself that stresses us, but the travelling around without a proper schedule," he said. Last year's race was panned in some reports as being "boring" and "predictable". While the Yas Marina Hotel shimmered as the sun set and took in a stunning circuit that reportedly cost Dh1.47 billion, the on-track action was marred by key teams suffering various technical problems and, crucially, a championship that had been decided two weeks earlier.
Yet Rubens Barrichello, the Brazilian driver with Williams-Cosworth who has competed in 302 grands prix in his 17-year career, dismissed the criticism and joked he is even looking forward to seeing the developments surrounding the area. "I did not agree with those who said it was a boring race," he said "I thought it was a hell of a good track and I look forward to going back there - and there should be another 319 or so buildings constructed on the side of the track, which is quite amazing."
One such development that may interest Barrichello is Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the largest indoor theme park in the world, which is scheduled to open on October 28. "The facilities were excellent before," Stewart said. "Now that the Ferrari experience is going to open before the grand prix, that is going to add another bit of polish to it."
* Additional reporting by Euan Megson in Abu Dhabi