x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

More than one award is reaped at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

In the long term, the goal must be to produce a UAE driver good enough to participate, or even win, a Grand Prix race.

Oh, Yas. You really spoiled us this past weekend. Big concerts. Small gigs. Celebrities. After-hour parties in clubs and on yachts. And of course, lots of VIP passes.

Then of course, there was the little matter of the most dramatic conclusion to a Formula 1 season ever.

The 23-year-old German Sebastian Vettel was in third place when he arrived in Abu Dhabi. But in the last half of yesterday's race, he appeared to put more distance between himself and the competition with each lap.

Now, the champion has been declared and the crowds have gone home. To the credit of everyone involved in the organisation of the event, it really did seem that it was all about the visiting crowds and their enjoyment. One Facebook comment by a Dubai resident summed it up: "Ever had one of those dreams where you are surrounded by celebrities and your friends and everyone is dancing like at a school disco? Well that was last night … and real."

If anything, the crowds were given far too many choices, and it seemed that some of them were determined to attend as many events – and exclusive at that – as possible. It was more a case of "Can you spare a VIP pass?" than "Do you have an extra ticket?"

After Friday's practice sessions, Kanye West kicked of the first of three big concerts, and by all accounts, he did not disappoint. The only disappointment was that his performance wasn't interrupted - à la Taylor Swift at the MTV awards - by a stage-crasher saying: "Yo Kanye, I'm really happy for you - I'm a let you finish - but Beyoncé had one of the best concerts of all time here last year. One of the best concerts of all time."

The heavy-rocking Linkin Park might have been the weekend's least mainstream act, to UAE crowds at least, but they too drew in an ecstatically large audience.

The mighty Prince, who closed the series of concerts last night, had also delighted a disbelieving crowd at Yas Forum's Skybar on Friday night with an unscheduled performance that lasted over an hour.

But ultimately, the weekend should be all about the big prize. The fact that it was the first time in Formula 1 history that four drivers went into the final race with a chance of winning the championship, means that going forward, for Abu Dhabi, the Grand Prix race itself will hopefully overshadow any entertainment that surrounds it.

The first Abu Dhabi GP was about putting the F1 circuit on the map and educating the audience. The second, it turned out, was one for the connoisseurs. By the time next year's race comes around, the novelty aspect surrounding Yas Island should have worn off, hopefully to be replaced by genuine excitement for a world-class sporting event.

Formula 1 by its nature is an elitist sport: there are only 19 races and 24 drivers. This is a testament to the technical difficulty of driving at this level but also to how exclusive, and expensive, the sport is at all levels.

Complaints that the events are not affordable miss the point. The race comes around only once a year and will always maintain a unique value that other sports will never have. In any case, it's fair to say that no other GP host provides as many side events for as many people as possible like Abu Dhabi did this weekend.

Realistically, motor-sports will not replace football and other team sports in terms of popularity. You can't just practice driving a race car with your friends on a Friday afternoon, even if that doesn't stop some drivers from occasionally trying on our highways.

The aim now should be to continue promoting motor-sports in the UAE so that Yas becomes a year-round destination, and not just for the Ferrari theme park. Feeder categories such as Formula 3 and GP2 must be used to harvest the best driving talent that the country may develop, while events such as drag racing, which have already taken place, deserve better publicity than they get.

In the long term, the goal must be to produce a UAE driver good enough to participate, or even win, a Grand Prix race. The conditions are as close to ideal as possible. World-class facilities, strong funding and a supportive government exist. An aspiring driver here would have backing that few would get anywhere else in the world.

And maybe by the time that happens, we won't even need any extra attractions to entice the crowds onto Yas Island.

akhaled@thenational.ae