x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A Formula One track like no other

In a sport known for its groundbreaking innovations, the Yas Marina Circuit sets a new standard for F1 racing venues, with unique features to challenge drivers and spectacular views for fans that are unrivalled by any other track in the world.

Formula One fans watch the second practice round action from the main grandstand of the Yas Marina Circuit.
Formula One fans watch the second practice round action from the main grandstand of the Yas Marina Circuit.

ABU DHABI // There is something different about the Yas Marina Circuit. That has been the overwhelming reaction from the Formula One drivers, race teams and fans who have experienced the new track for the first time this weekend.

And while the spectacular setting of Yas Island is the most obvious distinguishing factor, there are many other things that make Abu Dhabi's circuit different from others on the F1 calendar. In a sport known for its science and technology innovations by F1 engineers have revolutionised the motoring industry now the facility itself is in a position to change the future of racing circuits. Nick Fry, the chief executive of the championship winners Brawn GP, said the differences between this and other circuits were simple but important to racing teams space, quality and organisation.

"All these things, to varying degrees, are what other circuits are lacking," he said. Teams will also enjoy special technological touches, such as the "air wall" that blasts over the entrance of each garage and blocks warm air and dust from interfering with the fragile technology inside. No other F1 track has such a device. But the real star is the circuit itself, which stands out for its unique design and the spectacular views it affords race fans.

Certainly no other Formula One track blasts through the middle of a luxury hotel, or sends its drivers through a tunnel as they leave the pits to come back on to the circuit. There is also a tricky, tight chicane with a special feature of its own. What fans will appreciate most, however, is how close they are to the action. The location of each grandstand was chosen to give the best views of any Formula One venue. At least 30 per cent of the track can be seen from every seat on the circuit unprecedented in F1 circles.

All seats are covered, another first. "We tried everything to bring the spectators closer to the cars," said Hermann Tilke, the man who developed the first designs for the circuit. "With Formula One, you have to feel everything not just see it, but you have to hear it and smell it. "It is very important that the people are close to the track and can see the actions of the drivers behind the wheel."

The 50,000 fans sitting in the stands today could do worse than thank Mr Tilke, the man to whom Bernie Ecclestone, who owns the commercial rights to F1, turns whenever a country is seeking to join the exclusive club of the sport's hosts. Mr Tilke, a bespectacled German prone to using complicated hand gestures to explain overtaking manoeuvres, is the creative mind behind the Yas circuit and those in Bahrain, Malaysia and Turkey, among others.

He is reluctant to claim credit for every detail on Yas. Much of the concept, he said, came from a combination of Mr Ecclestone and Khaldoon al Mubarak, the chairman of the Yas Marina Circuit. One thing is certain, though: the first sketches of what eventually became the Yas circuit came from Mr Tilke's hand. Every grandstand has "something that is special", he said, whether it is a view of the pit lane entering a tunnel near the main grandstand, or the view of the marina from the south grandstand.

The seed from which Yas grew was sown four years ago, he said, when the proposal for Ferrari World and a racing facility was first mooted. "After some time, we had to change everything because it was decided we would get the F1," he said. While the Yas circuit has been touted as a blank canvas for all those involved, Mr Tilke said there remained limitations on such a project. "You are never really free. You have the land, the surroundings and you have the budget," he said.

The lack of other developments on the island did allow for a certain amount of flexibility, however. The marina was at first planned for another part of the island before being moved to incorporate it into the circuit. And the Yas Hotel gradually developed more significance to the project over time. "It wasn't one particular idea, it was something that developed," Mr Tilke said. "It was always planned to have a hotel in the middle, but then the hotel was too small, they wanted more rooms.

"But we couldn't go any higher because of the restrictions with the airport. So we had the idea to make another block of the hotel in the water. Then we thought we could make the track go through it, and then we thought about the roof between the two buildings. "It just happened." The circuit passes through the two dividing sections of the hotel, and underneath a bridge, from which about 250 of the most important of VIPs will watch the race today.

"We were asked to deliver something different and exciting," said Paul Bell, the managing director of Aldar Hotels and Hospitality, which manages the hotel. "So this is what we came up with." The bridge was transported from Europe by barge and assembled in segments while work on the track went on five-and-a-half metres below. "It had to be done very carefully because nothing could get in the way of the track," Mr Bell said.

"It was a big logistical piece that was one of the most difficult logistical pieces for [the developer] Aldar." Another first was confirmed some time ago. Abu Dhabi will be the first Grand Prix to start in daytime and end at night, and that decision prompted organisers to undergo what Mr Tilke called "very detailed work" on how such a proposal would affect the race. The solution was the most sophisticated lighting system in F1.

There are more than 400 lighting towers. The taller ones, up to 40 metres high, spread light horizontally and the smaller ones shine vertically, removing glare and shadow. They will all be switched on at the start of the race, which means drivers can use the daytime visors on their helmets throughout the race instead of having to change to night visors. One of Mr Tilke's proudest features on the Yas Marina Circuit is one that will be seen by few spectators but felt by all the drivers.

Shortly after the cars pass by the West Grandstand, they will veer right and then left in a narrow chicane. The camber in the track is the opposite of almost every other chicane on the calendar. "If you accelerate too hard, you can go over it," Tilke said. "It is very easy to make a mistake, and I have seen it a lot this weekend. You can't even make a small mistake." @Email:rhughes@thenational.ae