x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Grand Prix party scene

There's more to Formula One than racing. Here's the lowdown on where to go, what to do and who to be seen with.

Only a Formula One rookie would assume that all the action of a Grand Prix takes place on the track. Sure, that's where those noisy cars race around, but come nightfall will everyone involved - from drivers to spectators - retire meekly to their hotel rooms for an early night, exhausted by a fast and furious day? They will not. From the ear-shattering noise, to the sweat, smell of rubber and oil and all that leather, the Formula One lifestyle is high-octane stuff. And the parties that carry on after a day's racing are merely a continuation of this.

But don't think swanning in anywhere is going to be easy. Guestlists at nightclubs and after-parties are under near-military levels of control. With the names of expected celebrities still being wildly bandied about, thick-necked bouncers will be more menacing than ever. You can try saying your name is on the list, or that your friend is already inside, you can throw on your sparkliest dress, but unless your name is Tamara Ecclestone then you might be out of luck.

As with all Grand Prix cities, in Abu Dhabi this weekend there are various venues for racegoers to fight their way into. Hotels across the capital are preparing for the onslaught, but some spots are more sought after than others. Where will you see the A-listers? Where can you dance next to the championship team? Where is the best place to party on Sunday night after the race? Here we present the lowdown.

One of the most exclusive spots will be a familiar name to Grand Prix groupies: Amber Lounge. A roaming, pop-up nightclub, it was first set up in Monaco in 2003 by the well-connected Sonia Irvine, the sister of the former Ferrari driver, Eddie. It was an attempt, she says, to bring all the racing community together for a chance to kick back after a hard day. It is often referred to as the ultimate playground for moneyed Formula One types, but it is open to all, depending on whether you're prepared to fork out for entry. The most expensive tables in Abu Dhabi this weekend - the Jeroboam Tables - are going for ?15,000 (Dh82,000), which will put you slap bang next to the VIP names there ("I have a really good idea of who will come," laughs Irvine, "but I'm not going to tell you"), along with refreshments all evening.

Earlier this week, the sound of drilling and banging carried across the Hiltonia's beach, where the Amber Lounge marquee was being erected, with space for 1,000 revellers and an outside jetty that juts out into the sea. Dust-sheets hung over 150 signature white sofas and 61 tables were dotted about, specially shipped in from the UK. However, there was a small fuss about one of the chandeliers swinging from the black drapes that make up the marquee's roof. "It's at least 2cm lower than the other two," said one of the organisers to a harried man on a stepladder. When people are splashing out big money on enjoying themselves, little details such as these matter.

Work on the site has been going on for two weeks, and although Irvine says that she is tired by this point of the Formula One season, she doesn't look it. The Hiltonia site was chosen after she had visited "all the hotels" in Abu Dhabi and decided that the staff there suited her operation. "What I'll do is come to a space. I won't say why I'm there but I'll check in or come for coffee or lunch, just to get a feeling for what a place is like. I know the staff here will give me 150 per cent and if something goes wrong or my generators go down, they'll do everything they can to make it work.

"Amber Lounge is an experience. It's not a standard nightclub." Given her connections to the Formula One circuit (she is not only Eddie's sister, but was the Ferrari physiotherapist for four years, so is on friendly terms with most of the drivers and teams), she can pull in the biggest names from the track because they feel comfortable and trust her. "I know people on the circuit, and I know how it works. In Singapore, one of the drivers was being hassled for autographs. If that happens, I just move the sofas, or put you in a corner to make you safe," she says.

Generally, autograph hunters are frowned upon. "It's not normally done," she says tactfully. "In Monaco, people don't bother the drivers. They know it's their downtime." Similarly, cameras are forbidden, although Irvine has her own official photographers who follow her parties around the circuit. "I trust them," she says. "Trust" is a word that crops up several times during our conversation. Irvine normally chooses to do four Amber Lounge parties a year on the Formula One circuit. This season they have been held in Barcelona, Monaco, Singapore and, now, Abu Dhabi. Valencia was dropped in favour of the capital, "because it's the last one of the season and a fascinating place".

But will Irvine get to see any of the big race itself? "What tends to happen is that I have to be here setting up tables, so I go to the circuit in the morning and when the race starts that's when I head off. Then I wait, because normally the race results affect what I have to do here." But given that Jenson Button is the champion, isn't she one step ahead already this weekend? "No. There will still be a winner. Rubens Barrichello could change and come second. There's lots that could happen," she says smiling.

Next on the list of venues to charm your way into is Etoiles, the nightclub at Emirates Palace which will rival Amber Lounge as the top party destination of the weekend. The big pull here is that, thanks to close collaboration with Flash, all the big artists from the Yas Island gigs - Beyoncé, Jamiroquai, Kings of Leon and Aerosmith - will be in attendance here after their performances. The club aims to be open by 11pm each night. At Jamiroquai's after-party on Friday, Timbaland will also head there from his set on the Corniche to double up as the club's DJ. Not only that, but on Sunday night, Etoiles is hosting Sir Richard Branson's after-party, so he will be there along with the championship Brawn team, Aerosmith, and Branson's personal guest list which features 20 to 30 major A-list celebrities.

This link-up makes sense in light of the connections between Virgin Galactic and Abu Dhabi. The capital's Aabar Investments now holds a 32 per cent stake in Branson's space venture. In celebration of this, one of Branson's Virgin Galactic employees, Dave Clark, the boyfriend of the British Princess Beatrice, visited town several weeks ago to make space-age preparations for the club on Sunday night. "They've sent out an aeroplane, a model of their mothership and of their spaceship, to go outside the club," says Nad al Kubaisi, the charming co-owner of Etoiles. "It's going to be huge."

Celebrity names are still flying about, but al Kubaisi says that he can confirm a clutch of drivers, a supermodel and several red-carpet regulars. But amid all these glamorous names, al Kubaisi says that he has been careful not to alienate his regulars. The club can hold up to 700 people, but spaces will be kept back for members. And while the club is flying in DJs from Amsterdam and Beirut, it is also relying on those they normally employ. Chancers should be wary, though. "We've been very dismissive about people calling up, who we don't know, asking if they can come. It's great for Abu Dhabi that we have these events. It's great for the city and for the country, but I'm amazed at how many friends I've developed in the past week."

The executive head chef Dean Bouvet, who is busy with fully booked tables for dinner in Etoiles on Saturday and Sunday night, jumps in saying he had a call that morning from some hapless soul looking for a guest-list place. "He's got no chance," grins al Kubaisi. "I last spoke to him a year and a half ago." Still, these are not the only two venues vying for attention. Tonight is the Chequered Flag Ball at Abu Dhabi's Intercontinental Hotel, hosted by David Coulthard and the BBC Formula One presenter Martin Brundle. The event will see 300 guests descend on the hotel. Dinner, musical acts flown in from the UK and the chance to win one of the 30kg Formula One Opus books, signed by Bernie Ecclestone himself.

And on Saturday night, Abu Dhabi Golf Club is hosting the Grand Prix Ball, held in aid of the water charity, fresh2o. Despite earlier announcements, Dame Shirley Bassey will not be in attendance now but the name of a big US artist as a replacement is expected to be announced later today. The 600 attendees will include the Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay, Rod Stewart's model and fashion-designer daughter Kimberley Stewart, and both Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton - although one imagines they might be excused for an early night before the following day's race.

In Dubai, things are understandably quieter. But come Sunday, there is one party venue in which true race fans will be fighting for space - the F1 Net Cafe in Jumeirah. There will be no velvet rope and it is unlikely that visitors will spot any celebrities, but the manager Sandy Norman says that the venue will still draw a crowd. "If you're an avid fan and you just want to concentrate on the race and bantering with everyone else then this is where you'll be."

There's something for partygoers of every persuasion this weekend, just, whatever you do, make sure you get plenty of rest first.