The sprawling, omnipresent environs of Formula One will swallow up Abu Dhabi next year, but members of an advance party representing this sport yesterday began to voyage to these parts. This was an engrossing sort of afternoon with Kimi Raikkonen, the world champion of an unruly, elite and sometimes deadly pursuit, occupying the role of a chief explorer.
A cavalcade of media, public relations people and other distinguished folk with monetary interests in the first staging of next year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix clamping themselves to the Emirates Palace. The airline Etihad wheeled a Formula One car into a ballroom, and a posse of local schoolchildren turned up to pose Raikkonen questions. It was all very contrived, a little manic but naturally Formula One.
Like some sort of pioneer, Raikkonen looked as if he had washed up at the Palace's beach, rather than jetting into the UAE by private jet at the back of 6am. Etihad may have threw their lot, and a serious pot of money, into associating their brand with a grand prix at the Yas Marina circuit to which they own the title deeds over the next three years, but this is a man who flies beyond first class.
Raikkonen, 28, who won the world title in his first year with Ferrari, is predicting a bright future for the growth of the event in Abu Dhabi. "It's going to be interesting to see the changes here next year," he said. "There have already been a lot of changes since I first came here three years ago. "I heard a lot of things about Dubai, but Abu Dhabi continues to change. It's going to be an amazing place. It is amazing now, but even more maybe in 10 years when everything is built here."
Dripping with opulence, others would harshly called it Kitsch, the Emirates Palace was the correct venue to house an event for a man whose basic salary last year was a paltry US$51m (Dh187m). In the learned Forbes 2007 rich list for the world's 100 highest celebrity earners, Raikkonen occupied 40th place, sandwiched between George Clooney and Jerry Seinfeld. At such times, Formula One's marriage to Abu Dhabi seems like a match made in some type of cash-littered heaven.
The cost of the Yas Island development was an estimated $40bn, but that is already leaping off the Richter scale. While the capital of the UAE is used as a traditional overnight stopover for passengers journeying to the heart of Asia, Raikkonen opted to spend a day before continuing onwards to Singapore. Raikkonen is not a morning person, so the night staging of the Singapore Grand Prix on Sunday will fit snugly into his plans.
He appeared to manage his itinerary with dexterity and as much watchfulness as he manages a race car, despite his travels turning into travails in the defence of his title. He is 21 points behind the leader Lewis Hamilton of McLaren in the world championship standings, but in his own Finnish and solemn manner, found a few points of his own at a press conference housed in the type of suite that makes your standard granny flat seem like a bolt-hole.
Raikkonen went through a routine in which he is well rehearsed and versed, responding courteously to questions. One could depict him as tedious in speaking as he is tenacious in competition, but he is affable and his monosyllabic persona is typically Scandinavian. One that can be mistaken for coolness or even disinterest. The Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo is happy that the partnership of Raikkonen and Felipe Massa will continue until the end of the 2010 season, despite the slipping of his world halo. "Kimi is like those great forwards in football who can't score for a while," he opined.
"Sooner or later they find their way to the goal again, which is good for them and their teams." In hindsight, Raikkonen would have been preferred to be compared to an ice hockey player or even a snowboarder. He admitted to one child yesterday that he is not overly keen on football. After fulfilling with some aplomb his role of trying to promote the staging of the grand prix, he managed to limp onwards to plant other Ferrari flags later in the day at Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi, and the under construction Yas Island circuit which he viewed from above in a helicopter.
Planted on him was more product placement than you would find in a James Bond movie. It would not be wrong to say that blue-chip sponsors appear to fall over themselves be linked with Ferrari. The Italian firm are building a new US$600m theme park on Yas Island which is due to open next year, while Raikkonen sports a hat with the name of Mubadala, the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government, plastered on it.
The company purchased a five percent stake in Ferrari three years ago. One may have learned next to nothing new about Raikkonen during his visit, but Formula One manages to reinforce the belief that it is a sport about the haves and have mores. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org