x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Yas circuit buzzes with raw energy

Fans materialise as F1 track opens ahead of the year's biggest race.

ABU DHABI // Asleep for much of the year with their vast grandstands almost eerily hushed, racetracks come to life in one-day bursts, such as the one yesterday at Yas Marina Circuit.

Three days from the second Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the place awakened, all the sights of motorsport rushing back into view. Gaggles of people stood gawking at a pit crewman as he inflated tyres. People stood in packed, orderly throngs holding cameras aloft, attempting to photograph a car chassis. A grand old woman requested a photo of herself in front of the landmark that is, well, Michael Schumacher's garage.

Energy materialised indoors and outdoors as Yas Island readied itself for Sunday and the twilight race that will decide the 19-race Formula One drivers' championship.

Indoors, the four drivers still in the hunt for the most celebrated title - leader Fernando Alonso, of Spain, No 2 Mark Webber, of Australia, No 3 Sebastian Vettel, of Germany and No 4 Lewis Hamilton, of Britain - held a jovial press conference.

"It will be a great memory of 2010 to have challenged," Alonso said as the drivers awaited practice today and qualifying tomorrow.

Outdoors, the crowds raring to cheer them embodied the deep connection of human beings and cars.

They milled around the various racing exhibits, studied some displayed Porsches and stood in short lines at F1-merchandise stands. They eased through snaking lines for the walk along the pit lane, posed serially for photographs on the asphalt of the finish line, and dialled people boastfully on mobile phones.

Crowds gathered, especially around the pits, where the teams prepare the cars in a long line of garages bearing the surnames of the 24 competitors.

"It's very exciting," said Gabriel Marquez, draped in a Spanish flag after travelling from Madrid with his friend from Mallorca, firefighter Raul Lopez.

"We were in Bahrain [at the season opener in March] and didn't have an opportunity to go to the pit lane and once here it's absolutely impressive when you see the mechanics try to practice.

"And the thing that was amazing, the people can be so close to the teams. It's very, very nice for Formula One."

As they talked, Lopez rifled through scores of brand-new photographs until he found the one from the Alonso autograph session with the two-time champion and points leader snugly in between his two fans.

"You have to come to see this," Lopez said, "because I have a lot of friends that like the Formula One but you don't know what it is until you come here to see and feel."

Marcel Mattusch had not expected to see and feel any of this when he and his wife Silke Oesterlein left for Dubai on holiday from Stuttgart, Germany. So it came as one pleasant jolt last Sunday when Oesterlein surprised him with a Christmas present of tickets for all four days.

"I'm the best woman of the world!" she said.

"I cannot believe it," he said.

Longtime fans of the seven-times champion Schumacher, they had never visited Abu Dhabi or attended an F1 race. Now they lingered around the finish line looking in awe as they took pictures and as Oesterlein yanked out her phone, dialed her father in Germany and informed him of her possession of a freshly signed Schumacher autograph.

"We felt the floor," Mattusch said, trying to summon the proper English word before Oesterlein chimed in, "The asphalt!"

Steve Ashby, a five-year Dubai resident from New Zealand, revelled in his first F1 visit after watching the sport "ever since they've been televising it."

"The proximity was great," he said of the pit-row walk. "The friendliness of the guys in the garages. They're obviously quite used to having people around so they obligingly move out of the way when people want to take photographs.

"It's just a very nice atmosphere and pace. If it was in Dubai, a lot of people would be pushing and shoving. Here people are just easing along, stopping to let people take photographs ...

"The bus service looks great. The parking arrangements are great. It has the feel that the whole thing will be well-organised.

"This place has been built specifically for amusement and enjoyment," he said on the day it came back to bustling life.