x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix's new buzz

With the greatest F1 racer back in the Ferrari driving seat vacated by the injured Felipe Massa the UAE could be hosting a historic season finale.

ABU DHABI // Formula One fans said yesterday that they were excited at the possibility of seeing Michael Schumacher in action in Abu Dhabi in November. Schumacher, the most decorated driver in Formula One history, announced on Wednesday that he would return to drive for the Ferrari team following an injury to theteam driver Felipe Massa at the Hungarian Grand Prix last weekend.

The date of Massa's return from a skull and eye injury is unclear, meaning that Schumacher could race all the way to the season finale in Abu Dhabi. Should he do so, the serial record-breaker would reach another landmark by starting his 257th race, tying for second most starts in Formula One, alongside the Italian Riccardo Patrese. The Italian team said on Wednesday: "Ferrari intends to entrust Michael Schumacher with Felipe Massa's car for as long as the Brazilian driver is not able to race."

Having initially denied being willing to replace Massa, Schumacher said: "Even though I completely wrapped up the subject of Formula One quite a while ago, due to my attachment to the team, I cannot ignore this unfortunate situation. As a competitor, like I am, I'm looking forward to this challenge." If Schumacher passes a fitness test, he will race for Ferrari at the European Grand Prix in Valencia on August 23.

Paolo Soldevila, a Spanish engineer living in Dubai, bought three tickets for the Abu Dhabi race on the day they went on sale in May. He said he and a friend who is travelling from Madrid for the race were "crazy, crazy" fans of Schumacher and hoped he would be racing on Yas Island. "This guy is the best I've seen," he said. "There's been no one like him; but it's that attitude that he had; he just wants to win.

"I really hope he's there. He is F1. I mean, it's really sad why he is there, because of Massa, but this is maybe amazing for Abu Dhabi." Schumacher was also a replacement driver in his first F1 race, standing in for the Jordan-Ford driver Bertrand Gachot at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, while the Belgian was in jail for spraying CS gas at a taxi driver. After that, driving for Benetton and then Ferrari, Schumacher went on to win 91 races and seven world championships, becoming the most successful F1 driver of all time.

Since his retirement in 2006, he has continued to work as an adviser to Ferrari and would in all likelihood have been in attendance in Abu Dhabi, even had he not been drafted in as a driver. Last year, the property developer PNYG announced that the Michael Schumacher World Champion Tower, a 400-apartment complex with a marina, would be built on Reem Island. A spokesman for YallaF1, a new Dubai-based fan website, said: "He is the best known racing driver in the world, a big name whose presence on the grid in Abu Dhabi will attract even more fans to the race, and, of course, the TV audience will be massive."

Khalid Halabi, a Syrian resident of International City in Dubai, said the chance to witness a piece of sporting history has erased his temptation to sell his ticket. "With [Jenson] Button so far ahead in the title race, I was starting to lose interest," Mr Halabi said. "The championship will probably be all over by the Abu Dhabi race. At Dh1,400 for a ticket, I was tempted to try to sell it. "But now the race will go down in history. It will be a classic whatever the result, and if Schumacher wins, we will be able to say, 'I was there to see his last ever win'. This will add to the pre-race hype, if it wasn't hyped enough."

Damien Reid, the editor of F1 Racing Middle East magazine, said he was taken aback by the announcement. "It was a huge surprise," he said. "I did a radio interview on Wednesday saying he was definitely not going to come back and all of a sudden, he announced he was." He added that he hoped Massa's injury would not lead to his having to retire from F1. "With F1, you need 20-20 vision, and if he doesn't have that, it doesn't mean it is the end of his motorsport career; there could be touring cars, for example."

Massa's injury, one of the most serious in the sport in recent years after considerable safety improvements to cars, should be cause for everyone in F1 to reflect, Mr Reid said. "It has raised a lot of questions in the sport again." rhughes@thenational.ae