x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The paddock is the place to be at Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The 7,000-plus fans who marvelled at the paddock from behind barriers must have wished they were on the other side.

Mechanics of the McLaren-Mercedes team hard at work in the pit lane at Yas Marina Circuit yesterdayPawan Singh / The National
Mechanics of the McLaren-Mercedes team hard at work in the pit lane at Yas Marina Circuit yesterdayPawan Singh / The National

A Formula One paddock is a fascinating cocktail of frenzied activity, a little leisure, a splash of chaos, a twist of controversy and a sprinkling of celebrity. For this reason, it is one of the most exclusive and difficult areas to access.

The paddock at Yas Marina is no different. And yet it is unique.

Once you pass through the electronic gates and swipe your pass in front of the radar, you are free to take a wander down the monoblocked walkway. You notice that sunglasses and suncream are proving this year's must-have items as guests and team staff seek both refuge for their retinas and shade for their skin. A drizzly paddock at Germany's Nurburgring this is not.

If you stop midway down the 400-metre paddock to observe its width, you consider it is as comfortably wide as it is comfortably narrow. Each of the 12 racing marques enjoy its own flower-lined terrace. A Renault staff member described it as feeling "a bit like sitting in your local park". An expansive grey concrete plain at Shanghai International Circuit this is not.

After inhaling the sweet smell of spiced meats - kofta and kibbeh - from McLaren-Mercedes' hospitality, you walk between the team buildings, but watch your feet as you pass over the wooden sun deck and past the VIPs who are drinking iced water. Now raise your head: that, my friend, is the circuit's piece de resistance.

Bernie Ecclestone said last year that Yas's man-made marina, complete with luxury yachts boasting names such as Miramar, Soramed and Plan B, was better than Monte Carlo's hallowed quay. Monaco this could well be.

Two Ferrari staff stand at the edge of the bay sipping espressos, talking animatedly and living la dolce vita; photographers dressed in shorts and T-shirts shoot and move and shoot and move, searching for that picture-perfect image; Jenson Button looks out across the azure towards the Yas Hotel while chatting to his physio and playing on his phone.

You will notice the 2009 world champion is sporting irregular facial hair: he is raising money as part of Movember by growing a moustache. Perhaps you will observe that, without his car and his racing suit, he just looks like a regular, fun-loving guy. Or maybe you reckon he looks like Ian Beale from British TV's EastEnders.

Speaking of cars, listen to that - the voice over the public-address system is announcing that the pit-lane is open. The garages are usually even more exclusive than the paddock, with only F1 staff and season-long media allowed access, yet here it is open to the public. Let's go, you think.

On arrival at the end of the pit-lane, you find the team garage of Virgin Racing where the cars of Jerome d'Ambrosio and Timo Glock sit jacked up; a rear wing here, a chassis there. Throngs of fans - more than 7,000 were at the track, according to organisers - stand on the opposite side of a branded elastic cord, pointing their SLRs at anyone who moves, including us.

You are likely to find yourself avoiding eye-contact, embarrassed by the attention. Karun Chandhok, in the Team Lotus garage, has no such problem. The Indian driver revels in the interest, clearly now accustomed to such situations as he walks over to meet the fans.

Cast in the shadow of the grandstand - expected to be full all weekend as the final tickets were sold - the ground in the pit-lane is tarmacked and features several swishes of Yas's famous aqua-blue paint. Richard Cregan, the circuit's chief executive, says the colour is to represent the waters surrounding Yas Island. It has certainly grown synonymous with Abu Dhabi's circuit.

As you make your way towards the top of the pit-lane that this weekend plays home to Red Bull Racing, you want to force your fingers into your ears: Williams are carrying out practice tyre-changes and the noise is deafening. A mechanic with bulging, tattooed forearms stands watching from the sidelines as the mass of SLRs click manically.

A few garages along, Ferrari, as ever, have plenty impassioned fans. Scuderia red hats and T-shirts are a regular sight all over the world, yet it is Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull that is gaining the most attention at the top of the Yas pit-lane.

As you get closer, your eyes are drawn to the side pod of the world champion's car. On it, squeezed between the team's regular sponsors, is an emblem for Du, the UAE phone carrier that joined forces with the constructors especially for this race.

It could be regarded as an emblem that the country's interest and investment in F1 is gaining further momentum.