x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Winning formula

Feature Sonia Irvine, used to work for her brother, the former F1 driver Eddie Irvine, and now organises glamorous after-race parties, including closing the season in Abu Dhabi.

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Racing is a family affair for Sonia Irvine. She used to work for her brother, the former F1 driver Eddie Irvine, and now organises glamorous after-race parties. She speaks to Helena Frith Powell about growing up around the track and closing the season in Abu Dhabi. F Scott Fitzgerald's character Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby - possibly the most glamorous woman ever to swing a golf club - famously said she liked large parties. "They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."

It seems Sonia Irvine, the sister of the now retired Formula One driver Eddie, agrees. Sitting in the lobby bar of the Hilton hotel in Abu Dhabi, she tells me about her Amber Lounge parties, where 1,000 or so guests mingle after the F1 races four times a year. "I could have more guests, but I prefer to keep it intimate," she says. Irvine came up with the idea of the Amber Lounge in 2002 because she felt there was a gap in the market for a place where people could hang out after the races that was not linked to one particular team. She had been working in F1 for her brother, whom she and the family call Edmund, for several years as his physiotherapist and assistant. But her link with racing goes back further. Her father used to race "but never to the level that Edmund did" and when she was a child the family's summer holidays invariably involved the British Grand Prix.

"We would bundle into an old camper and go away for the summer and watch the British Grand Prix," she explains. "We didn't have any money so Dad would say, 'Get yourselves in'. Edmund and I would go under the fence or attach ourselves to other adults. We loved it, the sounds of the cars, the people, the smells." She now lives in Monaco with her daughter, Megan, aged seven. "People think Monaco is all glitz and glamour but actually it's not. There is a real villagey feel to it. I find Abu Dhabi a bit like that too, which is one of the reasons I like it."

Irvine has chosen Abu Dhabi as the location for this year's fourth Amber Lounge party (the others are held in Monaco, Barcelona and Singapore). "I just think Abu Dhabi is going to be an exciting and unbelievable race and I like to bring the Amber Lounge to places that are new and exciting. The circuit they have created is utterly fantastic and, contrary to rumours, there is water in the marina. It's also the last race of the season so a wonderful place to end."

She cannot, however, confirm the location for the party, where a top table for eight will set you back Dh77,400, but says it will be on the island, not out at the circuit. The Irvines are obviously a close family. I wonder how difficult it was watching someone she loved haring around the F1 track at highly dangerous speeds. "You just put yourself in the mindset that nothing is going to happen," she says. "But there was one massive shunt Edmund was involved in. Just thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes. There were bits of cars everywhere. My heart was in my throat but then I thought, I have to pull myself together. If he is hurt he is going to need me. Then he came running up the pit lane and he had just injured his knee. I was so relieved."

Irvine says that she and Eddie came into racing as a family. "When we told my parents I was going to be his physio they were delighted. They knew I would care more than anybody else about him, and I did. I looked after him totally. I did everything for him. Michael Schumacher used to joke when he saw me in the gym, 'Are you doing Eddie's training, too?'" But in the end it proved too much for her. "If I had stayed, I would have died," she says. "I think I crammed eight years of work into four. I just couldn't say no to him. He's family, and you can't say no to family."

But she obviously loves Formula One. "They're all very down to earth," she says of the people. "When you're in the Formula One world you are part of a family. It's a really nice world, actually. Often a celebrity will come up to me and I won't know who they are. I don't mind that. I think you should treat all people equally." Irvine is attractive and extremely charming. She is 45 but seems 10 years younger. I imagine she gets a lot of attention from men on the circuit.

She laughs. "They're hardly the most faithful souls, and to be honest, as Edmund's sister, I was kind of off-limits. I have been single for a while now but my priorities are Megan and the Amber Lounge. I don't have much of a personal life, but then you can't have everything." When she does have time off, she says, "I have a personal trainer and I run around Monaco. There is a lovely circuit. And I love to play golf but I rarely get the time."

Maybe if she gets less busy, Jordan Baker will have some competition.