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Yas Marina: From 'blank canvas' to icon

It took two and a half years to get the Yas Marina Circuit ready for Sunday's Grand Prix and, shortly after the race, work continues on Project Yas.

ABU DHABI // After two and a half years and 184 million man hours of construction, the Yas Marina Circuit will open to the public tomorrow after workers frantically put finishing touches on the gigantic complex.

The remaining work being carried out today is purely cosmetic the 25,000 workers who remain on site are finishing the landscaping and cleaning the buildings and track but still needs to be done. When the gates open for the public's pit lane walk at 2pm tomorrow, it will be the first day without construction on Yas Island in almost three years. The work will begin again soon after the race; the island will eventually be home to a yacht club, a golf course, a theme park and a mall.

The design plan followed by the developer, Aldar, changed over time, but the finished product is something the company and the race organisers believe will be the definitive Formula One track. "We are all extremely proud of it because it has been a tremendous collective effort," said Steve Worrell, Aldar's director of mixed use development for the project. "The spirit demonstrated has been absolutely fantastic, from those who brought F1 to Abu Dhabi, to those who built the track and related facilities, to those who are managing the circuit."

Mr Worrell, who joined the project in January 2008, said it was a unique undertaking in that the facility was built in a previously undeveloped area. "There are some benefits to working on a completely blank canvas limited disruption of the local area, no existing construction to work around," he said. "[But] we did have to develop this project from virtual desert to what could be described as a functioning town, with the entire infrastructure required."

The project began with a goal of being ready for a race date in September, but that was changed to November when the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was confirmed last summer as the season's final race. In the original vision drafted by the renowned F1 track designer Hermann Tilke, the Yas Marina Circuit was a tight course on streets, in the style of the Singapore, Valencia and Monaco races. What is now the most striking feature the 500-room Yas Hotel, through which the circuit travels was nowhere to be seen in the original drawings. Plans for the hotel, which is covered by a colour-changing cloak containing 4,800 LED panels, were revealed last October.

"Towards the end of 2007 it was decided that as we were starting from scratch there was an opportunity to create a purpose-built circuit that could set new standards for a motorsports venue, so the plan was updated accordingly," Mr Worrell said. "The Yas Hotel was ... incorporated following the re-design and now is probably the most iconic part of the entire project. "It's a great demonstration of the incredible creativity that was associated with this project. The fact that we were working from a completely blank canvas meant that there was no limit to what could be done."

The topography of that blank canvas has been altered considerably. Large swathes of what was barren, sandy land are now green. Between turns one and three, a hill 15 metres high has emerged on what was previously flat land. The alteration to the landscape is, Mr Worrell said, "one of the most remarkable transformations" on Yas. With more than 40,000 workers on the project at the height of activity this summer, Aldar was tasked with running essentially another town in which the labourers lived.

On the island's eastern point, rows of accommodation blocks were built. At the height of construction, 17 tonnes of rice, 156,000 pieces of chapati and eight tonnes of chicken were consumed every day. Workers were on site 24 hours a day in shifts, apart from mid-day breaks, for two months during the height of summer. "I suppose the key challenge was co-ordinating the sheer volume of people working on the project," Mr Worrell said.

"With 68 different contractors, this project required logistical organisation of military precision. Keeping communication channels open was vital." Because it was such a high-profile project, he said, the developer benefited from many consultants and contractors being eager to be part of it. "From both a business and personal perspective, the opportunity for these people to say they were involved in the development of this incredible motorsports venue made this a very special project," he said.

Being late was not an option. Speculation, emanating largely from Canada, which lost its Grand Prix at the same time Abu Dhabi gained one, claimed the project was heavily behind schedule. Those claims were dismissed in Abu Dhabi. "Working to a completely fixed deadline did mean everyone was focused on a very specific goal," Mr Worrell said. "It just meant planning had to be watertight, and even more rigorous than usual.

"In any project, you will always have to factor in some slippage, so it means you must set yourself even greater challenges." The 25,000 men still on the project will be on the island this weekend, but are being given what Mr Worrell said was "a well-earned rest" before construction re-starts. Ten workers won three-day passes to the race and concerts. Others will be able to ride shuttle buses to the Corniche to watch the race on the big screen at the beach. Large-screen televisions have been installed in every mess hall and recreation room so workers can watch the race. Sports competitions will also be held, and a trip to an indoor skydiving centre has been organised.

Soon after the race, the next stage of Project Yas will begin. "The Yas Marina Circuit will naturally be the central focus when the world comes to Yas Island for the first time, but it is just one piece of a much bigger picture," Mr Worrell said. The Yas Yacht Club will be completed later this year, as will the Yas Links Golf Course, the country's first links course. While Ferrari World, the bright red 200,000-square metre theme park, will appear complete this weekend when it hosts four concerts, it will actually open in a year. Fitting the vast interior will start immediately after the race.

The Yas Hotel will open to the public on November 3, after the VIPs leave, and the 700-store Yas Mall should be open by 2012. A planned Warner Bros theme park is undergoing a design review, Mr Worrell said, with details on whether the project will go ahead expected soon. He said the scale of the project, and its importance to Abu Dhabi, made it Aldar's biggest undertaking. "It will be one of the first experiences that many around the world will have of Abu Dhabi, so there is a real responsibility that goes with that," he said.

"I may be slightly biased on this, but I think that Abu Dhabi is about to deliver an event that will exceed all expectations." rhughes@thenational.ae

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