Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

A decade on from hosting its first F1 race, Yas Island continues to inspire awe

Ten years after the grand prix's dramatic opening in Abu Dhabi, it's not just the race that draws fans to an ever-growing site

Formula One has been part of the Abu Dhabi scene for just over a decade. The first race took place on November 1, 2009, and in one way at least, the journey to the Yas Island venue this year will be as much of a voyage into the unknown as it was 10 years ago.

This week The National reported that racegoers will be asked to park their cars at Yas Mall before making their way to the track, whereas in 2009 we all wondered how we would get to the island in the first place and whether the traffic would tailback for hours. The organisers advised all racegoers to be in their seats by 2pm, three hours before the start of what was then the first day-night race in F1’s history. It all turned out just fine. I imagine it will be the same this weekend.

Looking back to 2009 and comparing Yas Island to how it is now is not just a nostalgic walk back to how we were, but a reminder of how much of the vision of Yas has been delivered and how much the city has changed since then.

Formula One weekend in 2009 marked a moment of formal introduction for residents to the big idea of the cultural island of Saadiyat and the entertainment hub that is Yas Island.

The kilometre-long Sheikh Khalifa Bridge from Port Zayed to Saadiyat and beyond opened just two weeks before the race, connecting the Corniche with the islands and providing a tiny taste of what Abu Dhabi might become. For many who journeyed to the track that weekend, it was the first time they had come into proper contact with either island, firmly shifting their perspective beyond the renderings and scale models of how the areas would eventually look.

The kilometre-long Sheikh Khalifa Bridge from Mina Port to Saadiyat and beyond opened just two weeks before the race Rich-Joseph Facun / The National
The kilometre-long Sheikh Khalifa Bridge from Mina Port to Saadiyat and beyond opened just two weeks before the race Rich-Joseph Facun / The National

Back then, the verges had been landscaped on the Saadiyat highway, but the big pieces of the jigsaw such as the first of the museums, hotels, housing projects and a university campus were some way from completion. Even the award-winning Norman Foster-designed pavilion, now such a distinctive feature of Saadiyat, was yet to open at Expo 2010 Shanghai, let alone be transported back to the UAE and reconstructed in the cultural district.

As for Yas itself, there was the track, the marina, the brooding mass of the yet-to-open Ferrari World and the quiet-calm of the not-yet-played-upon Yas Links golf course, the hotels and the exquisite attention to detail in the street furniture surrounding the track. So much for the tangibles; it was the intangibles that felt most at play in that moment.

As the sun set on the Yas Marina Circuit on race day in 2009, it felt like the start of a new era in F1. Not just because Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber swept to a one-two finish, marking the beginning of Red Bull’s moment of supremacy in the sport, or because Jenson Button picked up the world title for BrawnGP, completing a perfect year for a team that would become Mercedes GP for 2010 and begin its own period of domination four years later, or even because the twilight race had proven a unique experience with the teams and fans.

More than that, the race-day weekend felt like a days-long festival of the city. It was a moment when Abu Dhabi announced itself to a global TV audience and was an occasion, as experts said at the time, to confirm its place as both a capital city of the future and one of the centres of the new Arab world.

Free concerts on the Corniche and megastars such as Beyonce, performing to F1 ticketholders at Yas Arena, underlined the turbocharged moment Abu Dhabi was living in. New islands were opening up. The vision that had been outlined earlier in the decade was fast becoming reality.

The weekend was also a gathering of the kaleidoscopic communities that make up this country and of the band of diehard F1 fans who were curious to see if a world-class circuit and associated infrastructure could really have been pulled from the sand in a matter of months. They have kept returning ever since, drawn back by the “mind-blowing” facilities on Yas, as F1 expert and former team boss Eddie Jordan was prompted to describe the circuit this week.

Having climbed a mountain to meet that deadline a decade ago, Yas Island is still moving forward. If the fixed requirements of the Formula One calendar required development of the circuit at hyperspeed, the story of Yas since 2009 has been one of managed growth. Tomorrow the world’s largest indoor air-conditioned climbing wall will open to the public. Clymb joins three theme parks, the largest mall in the emirate and other tourism assets. More is still to come.

There was an element of “if you build it, they will come” about Yas Island 10 years ago, to plunder that oft-used line from the 1989 film Field of Dreams. A decade on, they are still building and we are still coming back for more.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief for The National

Updated: November 27, 2019 12:45 PM

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