x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

They came, they saw, they loved it

No matter what their background or age fans left the Yas Marina Circuit with experiences and memories that will stay with them forever.

The crowded main grandstand at the  Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The crowded main grandstand at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix attracted spectators ranging from fanatical fans to F1 novices. No matter what their background or age, they went away from the Yas Marina Circuit with experiences and memories that will stay with them forever. Jonathan Gornall writes They ranged from princes and tycoons to models, stars, dedicated fans and the simply curious. Whether they arrived by car, bus, helicopter or superyacht, the world came to Abu Dhabi yesterday and it liked what it saw.

Some 50,000 people jammed the Yas Marina Circuit to witness history in the making as the UAE hosted its first Formula One race, an event three years in the making. Most went away impressed with the spectacle and the scenery. Among them was wide-eyed Diab al Fahim, 11, from Abu Dhabi city. "It is very loud," he said after one of the supporting races, the Chevrolet Supercars Middle East Challenge. "And they gave us earplugs."

Diab was at the track with his brother Mohammed, 14. With Diab in jeans and T-shirt and Mohammed in a traditional khandura, the boys seemed to represent the nation's spectacular progress as displayed by an achievement broadcast around the world to millions yesterday. "People told us about this," said Mohammed. "I think it is very good and exciting." While he admitted he didn't know who most of the drivers were, he wasn't the only one.

Still, some in the throng were well informed. Down on the grid before the start of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the world's television cameras feasted on the great and the good who had gathered to celebrate the occasion. Among them was Prince Salman Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose own Grand Prix - next season's opener - now bookends the Formula One calendar with that of its Gulf neighbour.

Thousands were milling about hours before the main attraction, but with three support races throughout the afternoon there was no excuse for boredom. There were stalls and entertainers aplenty - jugglers, face painters, the lot. Where else on a Sunday afternoon in the UAE could women have their fingernails painted in the colours of Formula One teams? Everywhere there were visitors full of praise, from around the world. Sue Magliaro and her husband Pat, a veteran of 20 grands prix, had come from Canada to spend five days in Abu Dhabi.

"There was no Canadian Grand Prix this year, so we thought it would be great to come because it was an inaugural race," said Mr Magliaro. "It's a beautiful circuit. The facilities are unbelievable." Mrs Magliaro was effusive in her praise of the friendliness of the volunteers and the security staff. For many, it was their first taste of Formula One. Mike Davies, 36, from Northampton in England and working as a structural engineer in Dubai, took the week off to make the most of the occasion.

"I've never seen any racing before," he said. "I'm not really much of a fan, I just thought it would be something different to do for a weekend." With entertainers, stalls and merchandise stands around the circuit, not to mention four major concerts throughout the weekend, the organisers had gone to great lengths to make sure there was something for everyone, which was good news for Mr Davies's girlfriend, Sarah Cowell, 29. "The best bit for me was [the singer] Beyoncé," Ms Cowell said. "I don't know a thing about cars. I just have a little snooze while he watches the racing. I just love the music."

Others just loved the cars. Brian Hatton had travelled 5,000km from Glasgow, Scotland, for the race. "The track and the circuit are very impressive and the view out over the marina is spectacular," he said. For Sarah Hextall, 41, a teacher from Abu Dhabi, this was her first Grand Prix. She and her husband Steve, 40, a design manager in the construction industry, had brought their two sons, aged four and five, for two days running. "We drove in with the parking pass easily," she said. "I'm really impressed." It was not so new for her husband, who has followed Formula One since the British driver Nigel Mansell's success in the 1980s and early 90s. He still found some novelty in the panoramic views offered by the track. "Normally you can only see a bit of the straight," he said. "Here there is a lot more, I can't complain at all."

As the trickle of racegoers who began to arrive on the island from 9am began to broaden into a flood in the heat of early afternoon, rumours of sightings of famous faces began to circulate faster than the Chevrolet Supercars screaming round the track. "I've just seen the King of Spain in the Yas Hotel" and "Was that Tom Cruise?" were among the gasps overheard. It wasn't, as it turned out, but that most certainly was the multiple F1 world driving champion Michael Schumacher and the model Naomi Campbell in the Ferrari pits. And there, wandering about on the grid shortly before the start, a guest of the Red Bull team, was the English cricketer Andrew Flintoff. And, nearby, there was Sir Richard Branson, arm in a sling after an accident on a quad bike. "What a beautiful setting," he mused.

The singer Jay Kay and his band Jamiroquai performed at Yas Island on Friday night. He was back at the track yesterday, this time wearing his fan's hat. Yas Island, he said, "has to be one of the finest tracks in the world. Outstanding. Just 22 months and they've done it so well. We have to catch up". There was, undeniably, a sense of history and occasion yesterday, captured in a moment shortly before the start. The national anthem rang out across the track and, almost certainly for the first time, around the world. While not many of the thousands packing the stands would have heard it before, they instinctively rose to their feet and cheered and clapped as it ended.

As the TV coverage began, it became vividly clear that this was a track made to excite the most cynical of directors. A helicopter shot from high above the long back straight took in the avant garde bulk of the Yas Hotel, wreathed in blue lights and straddling the track as it wound its way around the marina, the massive red splash of Ferrari World complex and, in gigantic lettering in the very centre of the action, the words "Abu Dhabi".

Wherever the cameras looked, in fact, Abu Dhabi's brands were there, making their mark on the world: Mubadala, Etihad, Aldar, flashing awareness into countless living rooms. Even the weather played ball, showing up hot and sunny - and adding a spectacular sunset for cameras - with a fine wind perfectly judged to show off the hundreds of Emirati flags around the circuit to best effect. Then the German national anthem was played after Red Bull's driver Sebastian Vettel won the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ahead of his teammate, Mark Webber.

The lights on the Yas Marina Hotel glowed in the blue and red colours of the Red Bull team. The hotel's general manager, Jean-François Laurent, had promised something special and this was it. As a beautiful all-but-full moon hung over the scene, it was clear that Formula One had fallen in love with Abu Dhabi. And love of the more traditional kind was in the air. A Brawn mechanic seized the moment and brandished a pit board before the TV cameras: "Will U marry me Fatna?"

How could she refuse? * Reporting by Roland Hughes, Daniel Bardsley, Mitya Underwood, Eugene Harnan and Charlie Hamilton