As thousands of F1 fans descend on Yas Island, Matt Majendie talks to 13-time grand prix champ David Coulthard about the capital's circuit and what to expect.
Yas Marina in the spotlight as grand prix comes to Abu Dhabi
When David Coulthard first stepped onto Yas Marina Circuit, the stands were completely empty and the track itself was akin to a dust bowl.
The 13-time grand prix winner was among the first to take to the track in a Formula One two-seater, racing alongside ex-F1 racer Martin Brundle for a BBC television preview to the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009.
Tomorrow, the pair will take their seats in the commentary box overlooking a very different Yas Marina for the penultimate race of the 2011 season.
The venue has had both its fans and its critics, and 40-year-old Coulthard sees both the pros and cons of Yas Marina Circuit ahead of it hosting the third Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
"There's no question that Abu Dhabi is visually one of the striking grand prix circuits in the world," says the Scot. "If someone shows you a picture of the Monaco Grand Prix, it's instantly recognisable. Silverstone used to be, although less so now with the changes.
"And Abu Dhabi has that quality - you recognise it straight away, it's already quite iconic. And, for me, I love the grand prix weekend here. It's a great one. There's so much going on. On the Friday night, Martin and I tend to do an event and on the Sunday I'll be at Dubai Autodrome driving around there before coming to the circuit for the race. It's a lot of fun."
Coulthard talks excitedly about the drama of last year's race when four drivers arrived at what was the last race of the season all capable of winning the title, albeit with Lewis Hamilton boasting only a mathematical chance.
Fernando Alonso led the championship standings closely followed by Mark Webber but Webber's Red Bull teammate, Sebastian Vettel, defied the odds after poor pit stop strategies by his rivals for a seemingly unlikely world title win.
"I honestly didn't know what would happen," says Coulthard, "but I wasn't backing Sebastian, particularly as it seemed like he needed all the stars to align to have any chance of the win. It seemed Mark or Fernando just needed a reasonable finish.
"But what happened was quite remarkable. I remember Mark pitting early and Ferrari being so obsessed by what Mark was doing that they pitted too and completely forgot about Sebastian. And they both pretty much ended up stuck behind Vitaly Petrov and that was it."
"It was an unbelievable finish to an unbelievable season and the aftermath was as memorable for the celebrations as for the reactions by Fernando and Mark.
"Fernando's a two-time world champion so he knows what it takes to win a world championship and was well aware how difficult it was to win those two so to miss out at the last minute, I think he could accept. As for Mark, I think the wind had been knocked out of his sails in Korea when he crashed out."
Vettel's race triumph was his second at the venue and Coulthard fully expects the German to continue his 100 per cent record at Yas in tomorrow's race.
"It should suit Red Bull and, looking at the last 17 races on the calendar, it's hard to bet against Sebastian or Red Bull," says Coulthard, himself a former Red Bull driver. "It's difficult to know how all the top teams will fare with the Pirelli rubber in the evening conditions but you'd expect Red Bull to be on top. There shouldn't suddenly be a significant difference."
While the result may end up being the same as the previous two seasons, Coulthard is confident there will be comfortably more than the eight overtaking manoeuvres that took place over the course of the 55-lap distance last time out.
"That number was unusually low for modern F1 but that shouldn't be the case with DRS [drag reduction system] and KERS [kinetic energy recovery system]," he says. "As a result, last year's race wasn't one of the most exciting races on the calendar but this year should be a lot better."
Should the race action fail to ignite, there are plans - put on hold for this season - to alter the Yas Marina Circuit in a bid to encourage more overtaking for 2012.
The main alteration consists of widening the turn at the end of the back straight (turn eight), which Coulthard says "is definitely aimed at improving overtaking, no question".
However, the one change he would like to see is to the pit lane tunnel exit, which has been criticised in some quarters for being dangerous but also denying spectators a glimpse of the cars.
"I'm not sure who came up with the idea of making the pit lane disappear underground and taking it out of the spectators' view," says Coulthard. "I spoke to [track designer] Hermann Tilke about what would be visually more interesting and that would be to have a flyover rather than a tunnel bringing the cars back out of the pit lane.
"Changing that is only a cost issue and I can't see how that's more expensive than digging up some concrete and making changes elsewhere on the circuit."
The day-night aspect has had some critics in the past but Coulthard is not among them.
"I never raced here but I experienced racing under the lights at the first race in Singapore but I don't think I have a strong feeling about it either way," he says. "I find with a road car you still manage to find your way home even if it's dark. It's the same with F1, there's enough light to see what you're doing.
"It does affect the depth of vision and so that makes a difference in terms of some of the judgements but that's only minor. And again, it's something that looks visually spectacular."
The venue, though, has not been universally well received from all the drivers on the grid.
Former F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella bemoaned what he called the difficult and dangerous nature of the pit exit at the inaugural race in 2009, while there was driver criticism last season at the lack of overtaking opportunities.
As for Coulthard, when he first drove it, he admitted to liking the two-part nature of the circuit, the first half being fast and flowing and the latter half being more like a street circuit.
But two years on, he admits it does not have the wow factor of some of the other races on the calendar.
"I don't want this to sound like too much of a negative comment as I think it's a perfectly good racing track," he says, "but I'm not sure after the race you'll see the drivers smiling from ear to ear like they were in India two weeks ago.
"Or like they were in Monaco, where their eyes are coming out of their sockets for virtually the entire race with the adrenalin permanently pumping.
"But what Abu Dhabi does have is unbelievable facilities. There's the hotel, the Ferrari theme park and it's a venue to relish visiting, no question. But perhaps the track hasn't quite captured the imagination of the drivers as it might have done."