It would not be defamatory to say that a well-groomed Philippe Gurdjian has been around the block a few times.
Gurdjian enjoyng the challenge
It would not be defamatory to say that a well-groomed Philippe Gurdjian has been around the block a few times. He has been around the track several times more. In his role as the chief executive officer of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management, who manage and operate the Yas Marina Circuit, the UAE's first Formula One race track, Gurdjian gets out of bed these days for a few dollars more.
He competed in the Le Mans 24-hour race seven times during his heyday as a "boy racer". There comes a time to put away childish things, but a life spent adoring fast cars appears to have been a life well spent. Now in his 60s and a fabled creative mind, a small army of men work almost as long as Le Mans each day to turn Gurdjian's US$40billion (Dh146.9bn) F1 vision into a roaring reality. Gallic but hardly glib, the Frenchman is the guardian of the much- vaunted Yas Marina Circuit. Yas Island is the developing site of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, due to be staged for the first time on Nov 1. Gurdjian hopes it will be a sight for sore eyes.
The first line in the sand of this mammoth project was drawn in Feb 2007. Two years have passed but in conversing with Gurdjian, one senses there is much work to be done before any backslapping can commence. His version of Utopia has to be realised in what seems like a race against time. A cavalcade that includes the sport's president Bernie Ecclestone, its drivers, manufacturers, officials, millionaires, beautiful people and motorheads will descend upon Abu Dhabi for the last segment of an exhaustive 17-race season that opens in Australia at the end of this month.
One imagines that it would need a certain degree of self-belief to oversee such a grandiose plan. This blue-chip race is the blue- riband event in Abu's Dhabi's sporting portfolio. This year the emirate has already hosted a world-class golf championship and a tennis tournament featuring the best men players in the world. In December it will be home to the Fifa Club World Cup. However, they all pale into insignificance when one dons a hard hat to witness the goings on at Yas Island.
An organised chaos governs the construction work. "There is a lot of stress, but you have to understand that there will be problems when you take on a project like this," says Gurdjian. "I am here to solve the problems and we have tried to solve all the difficulties. At the moment, the progress is good." Yas Island will be festooned with grandstands that will house 50,000 spectators, and a man-made marina that could perhaps house Ecclestone's yacht.
It has a hotel with a roof that changes colour, a design comparable to the Allianz-Arena in Munich, Germany. Spectators can luxuriate in a hotel which will boast around 600 rooms. It will be the only hotel in the world to have a F1 track running through it. It is said that the Ferrari World theme park will be bigger than London's O2 Arena. A Sun Tower will define the start-finish straight. There will be two tracks at the circuit. A drag strip and karting will be all the rage.
The list is endless - and ongoing - but it will continue to be bravado until it is built. Money talks, and, at Yas Island, it will be expected to sing, dance and walk. "This is completely different to the famous street circuit in Monaco," Gurdjian stresses. "The marina and the hotel is so exclusive here. I did all the design. "No spectator will have a fence in front of their eyes. This is unique to F1. The spectators will enjoy the experience, and be closer to the action.
"It will be very interesting. From the beginning, I thought we must create something specific in terms of architecture so that you know it is Abu Dhabi." Yas Island is heaving as much under the strain of expectation and speculation as the heavy industry that infiltrates it. The pressing priority of Gurdjian and his people is to ensure the 5.55km track is fit for purpose by the end of August. The circuit has to be tested and certified before men like the F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton try out the 21 turns, and an estimated top speed of 317km/h. Gurdjian is used to twists and turns.
The Yas Marina Circuit must speak to the world about a glistening, emerging place. An estimated 600 million people watched last year's F1 world championship on television. First impressions are as crucial in sport as in life. The development of the site will continue apace after the first staging of the grand prix. Gurdjian appears to be some sort of messenger. "Aesthetically, I am sure it will be fine but at the same time, this is a shell," he points out. "You have to understand that underneath this shell we have a lot of technology and a lot of connections.
"We had to start from an island, with no electricity, light or water and no bridge, but we had to put in a lot of technical things that will be very important for the future. "I am sure it is going to be something that is going to be so unique and so exclusive that people will recognise instantly from photographs and from watching television that it is Abu Dhabi." More than 30,000 men are trying to solve what seems like one giant jigsaw puzzle in the sand. Gurdjian must ensure the pieces all fit in the time left available to him.
Built by Aldar Properties, the end result of what Gurdjian calls "a huge project" will belong as much to him, the architects and its site workers as the Emirates. Gurdjian has always had a sense of belonging to motorsports. He is very much the distinguished gentleman, an urbane sort of individual. He wears a fetching suit, and promotes a glorious, unblemished coiffure. He likes to talk and in his distinctive French patois, perhaps broken English, he makes himself clear.
If the circuit is as well groomed as its prime organiser, Yas Marina should be viewed with some relish. In keeping with the sport to which it aspires, it will certainly be a fashion statement. "A track like Abu Dhabi hasn't been done before," he says. "The view from the grandstand will be unique, they will see the track, the marina, and the hotel from one point. They will see around 40 per cent of the race."
Gurdjian's wanderlust has brought rich experiences. He began his career with the Rothschild bank in the 1960s, around the same time as the Beatles were belting out "baby, you can drive my car". He has a certain je ne sais quoi in the way he carries himself. Before slipping into the sober suits of management, Gurdjian hardly cut an image of officialdom. The world of motor racing has boasted some terrific characters. One imagines Gurdjian being compared to the late James Hunt, a world F1 world champion and one of sport's most charismatic me - a cad and a cavalier in a fast car.
"Driving a car is exciting, but driving a car around a track you designed is more," he says. "When I was in Paul Ricard [in France], I drove the car around the track. "Driving a car is a personal pleasure, but in designing a track you must have in your mind that you want to give pleasure to others. "To make pleasure for one is easy, to bring pleasure to the world is more difficult. If the Emiratis are proud of this track, I suppose I will be satisfied."
Gurdjian is holed up in an villa-turned office in Abu Dhabi. His office at the track has yet to be finalised. Looking around some parts of a yawning Yas Island, the uninitiated could fret over the pace of development, but if there are concerns governing the mind of Gurdjian, he is keeping them battened down. Key elements of the venue have to gain character, such as water flowing into the man-made marina. A Spanish journalist has inquired about getting a head massage at the media centre.
Gurdjian is intending to ward off headaches in relation to safety for the drivers. "Abu Dhabi will be something quite unique in terms of safety," he says. "Le Mans was very fast. When I speak about speed, safety and braking, I know exactly what I mean because I have been a driver. I know exactly the problems. "Without passion, you cannot do anything. This sport is a dangerous sport. I have devoted many years to deliver safety."
It is said that if you want something done, ask a busy man to do it. Gurdjian seems to fit snugly into his adopted role. He has been bursting at the seams for more than 24 years, organising 25 Formula One grands prix, half a dozen of them in France. Gurdjian's first dalliance with a prime race came at the French Grand Prix in 1985, a race won by Nelson Piquet. Gurdjian was the promoter of the Paul Ricard circuit. He won an excellence award in 2006 from the motor racing's governing body, the Federation de l'Automobile (FIA), for improving its safety.
Gurdjian emanates from a background in advertising. In conversation, he will happily advertise his wares. He has undertaken similar work in Spain, Malaysia and Bahrain. He is proud of his performance at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. He was a consultant at the Circuit de Catalunya in 2001 and has snared plaudits for his contribution to the venue. At the moment the finishing straight is probably the closest one will come to seeing a finished article at Yas Marina Circuit. Gurdjian visited the sport's first night race in Singapore last September to study the safety aspects.
He is adamant that Abu Dhabi will be alright on the night, even if track officials reject suggestions that the race will not be staged in broad daylight. "We are working on lighting. I suppose for this part of the world and going out on television, it could be interesting to have a night race," he says. "We can do different things, and we are thinking about differ ent things." The world's economic turmoil has touched F1. Several teams have announced plans to halve costs by reducing the number of engines per driver to eight over the course of a season. They will also cut testing and decrease the price of engines for the more diminutive teams.
"The financial problems in the world are having no impact upon this project, " says Gurdjian. "The world is going to change, but this race is going to be so unique that people will be interested to come here if they have the choice. I'm quite sure they will discover something they have never seen before. "In a project like this, the people supporting me are 90 per cent supportive of my proposals, but you also have to understand that I have refused many projects.
"It is important when you build a track for F1, you can use it for other events such as MotoGP, but the fastest cars are in Formula One. "You have to understand that the circuit will be difficult to finish. To build it is not so difficult." As for his future, Gurdjian says: "I cannot say. First of all, I have to do this one." Life is complex at a complex like Yas Marina. Since he stopped racing, Gurdjian has hardly slowed up. He is unlikely to in the eight months that lie between him and his chequered flag.
It is said that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Another old adage states that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On Yas Island, beauty is in the eye of a besuited Frenchman. His veracity is not in doubt. @Email:email@example.com