x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Thousands of fans arrive in the capital

Even veteran followers of Formula One have something to look forward to this weekend: their first look at the new Yas Marina Circuit.

ABU DHABI // From savvy veterans to first-timers, racing fans arrived in the capital yesterday, filling the hotels and awaiting their first look at the new US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) Yas Marina Circuit. Enthusiasts who have attended 20 or more races flew in alongside others looking forward to their first Grand Prix weekend.

The first official public event will be today's pit-lane walkabout. One of the more experienced fans to arrive yesterday was Akihiko Maekawa, an airport security official from Tokyo. Mr Maekawa, 32, has been to the Japanese Grand Prix 13 times. He has also travelled to races in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Shanghai, Monaco, Turkey, Belgium and Bahrain. He said pictures of the Yas circuit reminded him of some other circuits on the Formula One calendar.

"Abu Dhabi looks like Monaco or Singapore. I like it," he said. "I like the noise and the speed, and I like to watch the cars." He is hoping - perhaps optimistically - for a good showing from his compatriot Kazuki Nakajima, the Williams driver who has failed to score a point this season. He is also a fan of the new world champion, Jenson Button. Saif Saleh, 31, said Abu Dhabi's first Grand Prix "definitely adds another chapter to the tourist guide".

Mr Saleh, a London-based Iraqi who works as an account manager for a media organisation, lived in Dubai from 2002 to 2005. He is here on the invitation of his brother Mufeed, who lives in the UAE. He expected the action on the track to be fierce, even though Button has already secured the title. "I feel very excited because there's a nothing-to-lose atmosphere with the drivers," Mr Saleh said after landing in Abu Dhabi. "They're all going to go bonkers trying to get up as high as they can."

With less pressure, he said, the event would have "a carnival" feel to it. "Fans know there's no sportsmanship excitement, but there's fun excitement," he said. "It's the first and it's going to have an entertainment atmosphere." Mr Saleh has "always liked Ferrari" since his childhood and would like one of the Italian marque's drivers to triumph on Sunday. He arrived with his friend Rada Dhaher, 41, a British oil industry design engineer based in London. Mr Dhaher spent three years in the UAE, but has not been to Abu Dhabi since 1982.

"It's the first time in Abu Dhabi and it's going to be huge," he said. "I think [the race] is good for the country. Abu Dhabi is getting more recognised. "They don't have a real history [of Formula One] here but they can always start. [The Government] can back this and it will be good for motor sport." Mr Dhaher is hoping for a win from the outgoing world champion and his fellow Briton, Lewis Hamilton.

"He's a good driver, and Jenson Button, too, I wouldn't mind seeing him win as well. As long as it's a British driver," he said. Also arriving yesterday was the Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber, who won the most recent race in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He flew in from Muscat with his partner and manager, Ann Neal, and her son after they enjoyed a short holiday in the Omani capital. Webber's teammate, the German driver Sebastian Vettel, who remained a championship contender until a fortnight ago, was scheduled to arrive yesterday evening.

Hotels are filling with fans and team personnel, and most have no vacancies over the weekend. The Aloft Hotel, owned by Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre and operated by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, opened on Sunday in time to welcome fans. Reema Baroudi, the public relations and communications director at the Intercontinental Hotel Abu Dhabi, said her hotel was filling up. "As of tonight we will be very full," she said.

At the Sheraton on the Corniche, the public relations director Martina Venus said the hotel had become busy because of the race. "We are running full occupancy already for one week, so fans have definitely arrived. We will be fully occupied over the three Formula One days," she said. Some of the 600 or so journalists who will cover the race arrived yesterday, although the bulk of reporters are expected to make their way to the UAE today.

dbardsley@thenational.ae