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Jenson Button, of McLaren Mercedes, gives a thumbs up to fans on the starting grid prior to the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit.
Andrew Henderson
Jenson Button, of McLaren Mercedes, gives a thumbs up to fans on the starting grid prior to the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit.

Yas Marina Circuit ablaze with colour for the big day

50,000 racegoers turned Yas Marina Circuit into a canvas of F1 colour and fun.

ABU DHABI // You couldn't drive the cars yesterday, but you could certainly wear the Red Bull-Renault hats – or the Webber T-shirts, or the ripe-red Ferrari fingernail paint – and as merchandisers rubbed their hands with glee, 50,000 racegoers turned Yas Marina Circuit into a canvas of F1 colour and fun.

Once on the other side of the security gate, thousands streamed to their places in the grandstands, with splashes of the brazenly coloured hats everywhere in the crowd denoting favoured teams: for Ferrari, blood-red; for McLaren, bright orange; for Lotus, British racing green.

Flags of Ferrari and Spain flapped in the breeze, marking those supporters out in force hoping to see Fernando Alonso win his second title.

Francisco Arce and Jose Manual were dressed in matador outfits. "Alonso is a fighter and he will fight the two Red Bulls in the 'plaza', and we are here to represent that," Mr Manual said.

F1 FanZone was bumping to a backdrop of live music, but also choked with long queues. Tony Ferguson, 29, a Londoner who works in Dubai, said: "I thought I'd be here all day trying to get something to eat, but [the queue] moved, and within a minute or two I walked away with my burger."

The burgers sold for Dh20, while soft drinks and tea cost Dh10 - not so expensive for the average appetite. But it was at the circuit's merchandise stalls that the crowd really opened its collective wallet.

Hats representing both the Red Bull drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, were sold out by mid-afternoon. The hats were selling faster than Vettel's qualifying lap, at Dh180 a pop. So too were Webber's T-shirts.

Elsewhere, a carnival feeling prevailed: fans got their fingernails painted in their favourite team's colours. Children jumped around in the play areas and groups of men filed into the arcade to race each other in Formula One simulators.

Soheir Ghanem from Dublin, visiting just for the race, said: "This is amazing. I am a big Alonso fan."

Nearly every seat was filled in the Support Pit stand by 4.45pm. At that point, with 15 minutes to go, Etihad flew a jet over the circuit.

Then, at 5pm, the engines roared and the lights changed from red to amber to green. The racecars screamed around the 5.5km track, with 50,000 spectators panning from left to right to capture Vettel, Hamilton, Button and Alonso on their phones and cameras.

Tony Sacy said he took the day off work in Dubai to experience his first grand prix. "It was amazing. I was too slow to get tickets last year, so I got these when they first went on sale. It was not just the race - the F1 FanZone and the atmosphere in general has been excellent."

Peter Svensson, who lives in Sweden, arranged to meet a friend from Australia halfway - in Abu Dhabi. "We didn't know the grand prix fell on this weekend. We went and got tickets and it's been brilliant. Everything about it has been great," said Mr Svensson.

After the pageantry had ended – and Vettel was declared the victor – supporters headed for the exits, many walking just down the road to see Prince at Ferrari World.

On the way out, groups of Emirati volunteers cheered and waved goodbye to the fans leaving the circuit. "Afwan, goodbye, hope to see you next year," they shouted.

They formed a line at the gate and fans ran past giving high fives, taking photographs and clapping and cheering along with them.

F1 diehard fans Jacqui and David Savage were taken aback by the energy of the volunteers. "We have done about five grands prix between us and we have never seen anything like this before. We just wish we brought our son to see this spectacle. The energy and the buzz is just electric," Mrs Savage said.

The Emirati volunteer Hamood Shehhi said the day had brought something for everyone,  even people like Ms Ghanem from Dublin, who saw her favourite driver miss out on first place. "It is not just the drivers who won. It was Abu Dhabi and all the fans," he said.

eharnan@thenational

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