x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Yas moves into pole position

As the final flourishes are added to the Yas Marina Circuit ahead of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, fans have had their first glimpse of the venue as the world's rich and famous arrive to take their places among the F1 glitterati who will watch the race.

Fans fill the pit lane as ticket holders get their first chance to see the track yesterday.
Fans fill the pit lane as ticket holders get their first chance to see the track yesterday.

As the final flourishes are added to the Yas Marina Circuit ahead of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, fans have had their first glimpse of the venue as the world's rich and famous arrive to take their places among the F1 glitterati who will watch the race. Roland Hughes reports Ferrari World looms large in the distance and the peaks of the five grandstands sit further behind, their fortress-like walls containing the increasingly frantic Formula One circus.

In the foreground, four men in yellow overalls, their heads covered in red-and-white ghutras, try to sweep away what sand remains on the roads leading to the circuit. It should be the last of the work to be done to tidy the Yas Island venue before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but the wind keeps blowing the sand back again. The sweeping continues - it has to be perfect. As the first fans arrived at the Yas Marina Circuit yesterday, almost all the finishing touches were complete. But just 24 hours earlier, workers were still painting the pit-lane tarmac blue and an orchestra of drills and hammers was echoing around the site as the final flourishes were added.

While their work was coming to an end, that of the 10 F1 teams whose cars will take to the track for free practice today was only just starting. On Wednesday, the skeletons of most of the competing 20 F1 machines sat outside their narrow team garages in the pit lane, slowly being prepared for battle. By yesterday, the circuit was ready and, while no one associated with the project will admit to any pressure, the fact that 600 million people around the world are expected to be watching the race itself on Sunday is inescapable.

Before this week, only a few thousand people - construction workers, circuit staff and journalists - had seen what the venue had to offer. That number was swollen yesterday afternoon by several thousand fans who had turned up for the traditional Thursday pit-lane walk that gave them the closest brush with cars, teams and drivers they will have all weekend. The start-finish straight was also opened up to visitors, many of whom were taken aback by the scale of what they saw.

Surprise seemed to be the main response; surprise that such a large facility could have emerged from the dust without, it seemed, anyone having noticed. Claudia Schaeli, 37, a Swiss national living in Dubai and visiting her first grand prix, took the opportunity to pose for a photo near the spot where the drivers at the back of the grid will line up for the race. Taking the pictures was her husband Peter, 42, an Emirates Airline employee. "It is amazing. This is great for Abu Dhabi and great for the country," he said. "Most people we know have been to Dubai but not Abu Dhabi. This will give them a different idea."

Most fans visiting yesterday appeared to be UAE residents who had been given a day off to see Yas for the first time. An exception was Mike Thomas, 63, a British civil engineering consultant living in Belgrade, who will be attending his first grand prix. "I used to live in Abu Dhabi so it was a good reason to come back, to see the whole spectacle of the whole development of Yas Marina. "I think it is tremendous for Abu Dhabi to increase its exposure on the international sporting calendar," he said.

Despite the presence of their F1 heroes, some fans were left disappointed. Several hundred people lined up at one end of the start-finish straight in 36°centigrade heat hoping to meet drivers and get their autographs. Renault's Fernando Alonso was one of the most in-demand and a lucky few managed to get his signature. Other hopefuls, however, reached the end of the queue after he had gone and had to make do with his lesser-known teammate, Romain Grosjean.

"He was here for just a few minutes," said Karen Crippen, 37, who had travelled with her son Ian from Dubai. "You don't get the chance to meet big names face to face here. But now he's gone." The fans mingling in the pit lane were separated from the garages by a narrow barrier. On the other side of it, the teams were a blur of activity and babble of languages. The largely Japanese crew of Toyota worked a few doors away from the scarlet-clad Italians of Ferrari, who in turn competed with the German and British voices of McLaren next door.

Sections of the circuit usually off-limits to the public were opened to everyone yesterday, although two of the most defining features of the complex will remain inaccessible to most fans for the whole weekend: the distinctive Yas Hotel and the adjoining Yas Marina. The term "Monaco of the Middle East" was uttered on a few occasions yesterday and, on the surface at least, there are similarities: as of last night, there were 143 yachts moored at Yas Marina, with around 5,000 people expected to watch the race from the water.

Another two vessels are moored in the channel outside as they were too big to be accommodated elsewhere. One, the 73-metre Rabdan, is owned by an unidentified Royal Family member. The second, the 110-metre Dilbar, is one of the longest yachts in the world. It is owned by Alisher Usmanov, the Russian tycoon who also owns a large share in Arsenal football club. While it is by far the biggest yacht on show, it was discreetly hidden from the view of most spectators.

Around 85 per cent of the yachts were registered in the UAE, with most others coming from Gulf countries such as Kuwait and Qatar. Some had taken more than two weeks to sail to the marina from locations such as the south of France. Scattered among the boats, whose total value was estimated at more than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), are a handful of traditional dhows. Yacht owners booked all the berths offered over the GP weekend almost as soon as they became available this summer, and no access will be granted to vessels that are not pre-registered.

However, Paul Lane, the managing director of Aldar Marinas, the company behind Yas Marina, said "plans B to F" existed should the most important of VIPs decide to pay a visit on their yacht during the event. Quite who else will be watching from the waterside this weekend is as much of a mystery as who will win. Mr Lane said: "As well as the Royal Families, we will have A-list celebrities - from singers and supermodels to film stars. Everybody."

Nowhere else will there be a greater concentration of the rich and famous this weekend than at the Yas Hotel, distinguished by its cloak of 4,800 panels that, using technological wizardry, can be made to change colour - a feature that may or may not be seen during the race. More than 250 Royal Family members will watch the Grand Prix from a venue inside a bridge linking the two sections of the hotel under which the track runs.

All 499 rooms (the 500th was lost after it was "cannibalised" to make way for a larger suite, said the hotel's general manager, Jean-François Laurent) are booked out to team members, drivers, drivers' relatives and VIPs. The identities of those VIPs will presumably become known over the next few days. To sit in the purple-tinged hotel lobby, which would not look out of place in an episode of The Jetsons, is an exercise in celebrity spotting. The calm that seems to permeate the place is such that at one point yesterday, Sebastien Vettel, the Red Bull driver who could claim second place in the F1 championship on Sunday, strolled through the lobby uninterrupted.

The hotel's staff are as multi- cultural as the fans, journalists and team members at the circuit this weekend. Its 850 workers hail from 56 countries, including Brazil and Japan. The hotel will open to the public from next Tuesday with what Mr Laurent said were competitive rates. It has to be said, though, that only the wealthiest will be paying the Dh20,000 a night charged for one of the two 409-square-metre luxury suites, which have their own private pools and 16-seat dining rooms.

"I think this is definitely a statement for Abu Dhabi. It is like driving an F1 car or being the head of a team. It has to be perfect," said Mr Laurent before being interrupted by his mobile phone's ringtone - the sound of an F1 racing car's howling engine at full throttle. Just perfect. rhughes@thenational.ae