x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fickle fans are fading out of F1

The action at Yas Marina Circuit made the fair-weather supporters at Abu Dhabi Grand Prix become engrossed in the sport.

The true fans at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were not disappointed with the action they came to see. Christopher Pike / The National
The true fans at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were not disappointed with the action they came to see. Christopher Pike / The National

Big sporting events often attract those least interested in sports.

Take the Dubai World Cup. Hundreds of non-racing fans with their new hats, dresses and suits, head down to Meydan Racecourse then proceed to ignore one of the sporting world's great showcases, instead focusing their energies on socialising with fellow punters. And finally, spend the next few days boasting that they "never saw a horse" as some kind of badge of honour.

Wilful ignorance not withstanding, it remains a remarkably unfunny joke.

Sadly, that seems the way with most sporting events these days. And the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, with all its accompanying frills, is no exception.

As in its first three race weekends, the 2012 extravaganza provided five-star brunches, big-name concerts, DJ sets, yacht parties and, of course, celebrity sightings. Facebook statuses were duly updated and Instagram photos posted.

A race also took place, apparently won by a driver from Finland.

In fairness, this is not a phenomenon restricted to these parts.

The American football Super Bowl is infamous for luring well-heeled corporate types often more interested in high-end dining and around-the-clock networking than in watching the game.

And no modern Olympics has been staged without stretches of empty seats, usually committed to top sponsors who never quite get around to distributing the tickets to interested parties – or are unable to get their clients out of the hospitality suite.

Where there is a Formula One event, there will be a media/celebrity circus. Unfortunately, there will always be those happy to boast they "never saw a car".

But for those who made it to Yas Island over the past few days, it would have taken a monumental effort to ignore the action on the track.

You might not see those cars, but you certainly cannot escape their monstrous noise. And those who were present at the fourth running of the race were rewarded with the most exciting competition the track has seen.

After an impressive start Kimi Raikkonen chased Lewis Hamilton, the pole sitter, around the circuit and when the Englishman retired on the 20th lap it was always going to be the Finnish driver's day as he went on to take the chequered flag.

Yas Marina Circuit is still, in a way, finding its feet. For the spectators in the stands, the views are sweeping, and mostly spectacular. But drivers at times have complained that overtaking remains a rarity on this circuit, deeming the spectacle less dramatic for television viewers. Like any new sporting arena, it needs great moments, memorable moments, to cement a new identity.

Today's race may not have delivered a dramatic conclusion, but neither were fears realised that the novelty factor of Abu Dhabi's race is wearing off. Some suggested this race might produce swathes of empty seats, but those forecasts were proven inaccurate.

Of course, there were those who had more interest in watching Kylie Minogue, Nickelback and Eminem than Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton and Mark Webber.

But, by and large, the stands were full, and if not every customer inside the circuit was a race aficionado, at least the masses seemed to be increasingly interested in the race and in Formula One.

The Yas Marina Circuit organisers deserve credit for procedural tweaks. This year, passes for the musical acts could be picked up only from the circuit itself, thus avoiding the creeping trends in previous years of fans showing up only for the post-race events.

It mostly seemed to work. And if those who did the circuit walk on Thursday, and attended the qualifying rounds on Saturday are of any indication, the right balance is slowly, but steadily, being found.

Earlier in the day, as fans poured into the Yas Marina Circuit, it was evident that many had travelled from all over the world. Formula One, in countries like Spain, Italy and Brazil, remains an unbridled passion.

It is still early days for F1 in the UAE. But as the years go on the F1 culture is slowly working its way into the national psyche – suggesting the future is bright for motorsport here.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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