x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The race is on

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, one of the most glamorous events in the Formula One season, hits its fifth anniversary this weekend. Kevin Hackett meets the people who make the Yas Island race a success.

Ahmed Hilal Al Kaabi, the Yas Marina Circuit’s head of Government affairs, surveys the track ahead of this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which requires a team of hundreds of staff to successfully operate. Christopher Pike / The National
Ahmed Hilal Al Kaabi, the Yas Marina Circuit’s head of Government affairs, surveys the track ahead of this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which requires a team of hundreds of staff to successfully operate. Christopher Pike / The National

When people refer to grand prix racing as a travelling circus, it’s an understandable reference point. At each of its venues around the world, Formula 1 rolls into town for a few days of entertainment magic and then disappears in a wake of tyre smoke, leaving behind a growing legacy and a team of professionals who have spent many hard months preparing for it, only to have to start again for the next visit. And, this weekend, it’s Abu Dhabi’s turn. The F1 circus is in town.

To give you some idea of the sheer scale of what’s involved, consider some snippets of trivia. The track at Yas Marina, for instance, has to be cleaned before the racing, for obvious reasons. This takes more than 200 hours and involves specialist trucks travelling up to 1,500 kilometres around the circuit. To repaint the lines and markers around the track requires almost 15,000 litres of paint and takes almost 1,000 man-hours. Just to spray-paint the white lines around the track involves a man walking 28km.

For the race weekend, 527 five-gallon water bottles are ordered, as well as almost a quarter of a million 500-millilitre bottles. Seven thousand people work day and night (not including third-party contractors) in the lead-up to the main event. Up to 40 tonnes of cargo for each race team needs to be handled, arriving in 140 sea-freight containers and five Boeing 747 cargo planes, and there are 50 forklift trucks around the site, moving everything into position. There are also 25,000 car parking spaces that need to be filled and managed.

These figures don’t even come close to scratching the surface of what’s involved in putting on the greatest show on Earth and, when 800 million viewers tune in on their television sets and computers around the world on Sunday, precious few of them will have any idea about what’s involved, what goes on behind the scenes or who is back there, bringing countless facets together to ensure that the race goes ahead as planned. So The National sat down with five individuals who play pivotal roles in the lead-up to race day to discover just some of the things that they do to help keep the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on track.

Joanna Bates, venue and event manager

“This year we’ve taken everything in-house,” says Bates of the staff that she manages, who, in turn, manage the entertainment aspects of race day. And that means coordinating with 25 individuals who will, she promises, “be delivering some really great ideas this year.”

These people have arrived from all over the world to bring their expertise, and Bates seems genuinely excited about what’s on offer this time. “Our planning really starts in June,” she says, “with a lot of the contract staff starting in August. And then, as it gets closer, the staff numbers keep on increasing.

“This year we really wanted to do something new, to make sure there’s entertainment from the minute you walk through the gates. For instance, we’ve themed all the individual Oasis areas. One has its own beach, where a Beach Boys cover band will be playing and a professional sandcastle artist will be there. Also, the North Oasis will be a heritage and culture village with traditional music, falconry, henna painting and camels – I think it’s important that international visitors get a chance to experience some of the history of the country they’re in.”

Hospitality, she says, has also been given a bit of a shake-up. “We’ve really made an effort to make sure there’s something for everyone,” she says. “Last year, the Grand Prix was moved forward by two weeks and that made a massive difference to how hot it was. So one of the lessons we learnt last year is that we need to have fewer activities that involve people being interactive and more chill-out space. So this year there are more areas where people can just kick back and relax, and we’ve also greatly improved the sound systems to make sure the event is even more enjoyable. Abu Dhabi has been voted the best grand prix several times and that’s because we’re always looking for ways to improve, to make sure we’re different every time they visit.”

Nick McElwee, sales and marketing director

“Our aim every year is to deliver a sell-out event,” says McElwee, who is Irish. “And it doesn’t happen by accident.” He used to manage an advertising agency in Abu Dhabi that was contracted to market the grand prix for its first two years, but he jumped ship to join Yas Marina three years ago and hasn’t looked back since. His experience as someone who’s managed the sales and marketing for each of Abu Dhabi’s five Grands Prix is invaluable.

“We go as far as our audience is prepared to travel,” he says of the marketing reach for the grand prix. “Which is to say, everywhere. We start planning for next year’s grand prix as soon as this year’s is over, and we like to start the marketing programme at least nine months before the event takes place. If you’re visiting from Australia or Venezuela, you need time to plan your trip, so it’s important that we’re in the market, talking about our grand prix well ahead. This year, for instance, we will have visitors here from 80 different countries, from all over the world.”

McElwee and his department work very closely with the event’s main sponsor, Etihad Airways, and the Tourism and Culture Authority, to help these people understand what to expect from Abu Dhabi. “We have to present a unified grand prix proposition to these markets.”

Another aspect for marketing the event is making it accessible to more people. “We’re getting more people in this year,” he says, “increasing capacity to 55,000 seats from 50,000, and we’ve presented a more affordable product. We can now go to market with Dh395 tickets, as well as the Dh18,000 Paddock Club ones. And this includes all the entertainment as well as the night-time concerts. It’s fantastic value.”

Ahmed Hilal Al Kaabi, head of Government affairs

Al Kaabi is a man who makes things happen. When you consider the number and variety of people who visit the UAE for this event, complications are bound to arise, and you definitely need a man who can smooth things over, speed up processes and avert potential diplomatic disasters.

“My office works closely with the whole Government,” he tells us. “Everybody needs permission to enter the country for those days and we try to make their lives as easy as possible. We face lots of difficulties: this is a very sensitive location and we have to get approval for whatever it is we’re planning to do for the event, even something like putting on the fireworks display because of how close we are to the airport. But we get things arranged.”

He relates a tale of a previous year, when a helicopter to be used for aerial photography arrived at the airport as a selection of parts that required assembling, and it was snarled up at customs. “To make sure we got this thing in time, I took the truck myself, drove it to the airport, picked everything up and delivered it to the hangar. That was the only way the helicopter would be ready on time for the race.”

It isn’t just strange machinery that can get held up at airports, however, and Al Kaabi has ensured the safe and speedy passage of many foreign dignitaries and VIPs. “It can be very difficult at times,” he admits, “and there’s no way around it. I have to physically get in the car, go there and sort it out – often involving a few phone calls. But we do have the support of the entire Government. This is an event that’s extremely important for the entire UAE and the GCC as a region.”

Mohammed Al Qadi, senior director of operations

“The operations department at Yas Marina encompasses sporting, facility management, venue management, event security and logistics,” Al Qadi says, “and within these are smaller departments that look after almost everything else around the circuit.

“We’re responsible for everything, from making sure that all the equipment for the teams gets here and is delivered to them in mint condition, to snagging where we go around the track to make sure it’s as perfect as can be. We look after these magnificent buildings, sort out the furniture, make sure the water is all delivered – all the small details that are required from the huge team in preparation for the event. I have around 80 people reporting directly to me and many of them have been here since the first race, five years ago,”

Most of the race teams, he says, have two sets of equipment, so they’re not all madly shipping over everything from the Indian Grand Prix that took place last weekend. “No, what’s been arriving here has come from Japan,” he says, “where the race before India took place. The equipment that’s in India right now will go straight to the race after ours, which is in the United States. The cars, of course, are different, and they will arrive here two days before practice starts.”

And once the race is over, Al Qadi and his team can’t take it easy. “That’s when the clean up begins and we have to make the place spotless again for the next event, whatever that might be. Every day we face so many challenges and we deal with them, hopefully preventing them recurring the following year.”

Dana Buchawiecki, transport manager

He looks like a bearded Tom Cruise, and seems to be just as popular with the workers, who come up to high-five him as he’s sorting out the positioning for the luxury coaches that need to be parked up. As the man in charge of transport logistics, Buchawiecki’s job has to be one of the most high-pressured of all. “We start planning in January,” he drawls, “and it’s me and a team of three from January through April, when we go through all the background information of constituent groups that will need transport. From there, we start ramping up in June and I get an additional four people. And from September, we’re planning for 11 different transport systems, 180 vehicles, providing transport for marshals, pit and podium shuttles, FIA VIPs, as well as the external park and ride shuttles, internal and external public transport systems, media, staff and hotel shuttles as well.”

His team is also charged with overseeing those 25,000 car park spaces and the traffic management that goes with them. “What you see now has been an evolution since 2009 – things have been simplified wherever we were able. When we’re at full capacity, which is now, we’re looking after 400 ground staff, 150 vehicles and 270 drivers,” he laughs. “Which is why I don’t have any hair left.”

These guys also have to plan for unforeseen occurrences, being ready for any eventuality, whether it’s a broken-down buggy or an emergency mass exit. Is the stress ever too much? “I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s what we all live for, the adrenalin.”


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