x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Yas Marina Circuit's CEO hoping to top debut

Richard Cregan, the circuit's chief executive officer, is relishing the chance to provide a season finale that is even better than last year's memorable debut.

Richard Cregan is looking forward to another thrilling weekend.
Richard Cregan is looking forward to another thrilling weekend.

Richard Cregan cuts a relaxed figure as he takes a well-earned breather from the last-minute work under way at Yas Marina Circuit in preparation for the second arrival of Formula One in Abu Dhabi.

The Irishman led the track's debut on the Grand Prix calendar last year as Abu Dhabi hosted the final race of the 2009 season, surprising the motor-racing fraternitywith the speed with which it created one of the world's most sophisticated circuits and earning the title 2009 Race Promotor of the Year at the end-of-season Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) awards in Monaco.

So is it possible to better that? Cregan, Yas Marina Circuit's chief executive officer, believes so - and he has the experience to judge what's possible. He spent 24 years working for Toyota, starting off as a racing mechanic and working his way up to general manager and team manager of the company's F1 operation.

"We won best Grand Prix last year and that was a huge incentive for everybody after all the hard work they had put in," he says, sipping on water in one of the rooms overlooking the marina. "This year we feel we have even increased that level of excellence in certain ways."

Yas Island went from being a barren and inaccessible blank canvas of sand to a world-famous motor-racing venue and more in just two years. "We always felt that we under-promised and over-delivered last year and we want to maintain that way of going forward," says Cregan, who speaks with undisguised pride about what his team has achieved.

"The track and the paddock facilities had the competing drivers and teams in the series purring with compliments. To hear people talk about us in some ways becoming the benchmark for F1 circuits around the world is great."

After the push last year to get the track and its surroundings ready in time to host the race, in the full glare of world media attention, the build-up for this year's event has been somewhat more relaxed - not that Cregan is resting on his laurels.

'There is big expectation built on the back of the success of last year and obviously we have to make sure we deliver," he says. "The preparation is going well. Some days I feel it is too quiet but that is probably just because it was compared with what was going on last year."

Trying to find a spare moment of Cregan's time during last year's race weekend was no easy task, as he jumped from meeting to meeting, overseeing every detail of the track's all-important maiden event and ensuring there were no serious glitches. This year, he hopes things will be a little different, although any spare time he does have will not be wasted.

"What I am hoping is that, with the structure we have in place, it will release my time a little bit more so it will allow me to spend more time doing interviews helping to promote Yas Marina Circuit and Abu Dhabi."

He also hopes to be able to spend "a little more time just having a look at the event from a distance rather than right in the middle of it, like I was last year. What I get from that will go towards facilitating the team to come up with ideas for future events".

Not too much is different from last year in terms of the action and number of races, but Cregan and his team have looked at increasing the entertainment when there are no cars on the track.

"One of the areas that we have looked very hard at are the Oasis areas, and that is in terms of the entertainment," he says. There are four Oasis areas this year, while the F1 village at the back of the main grandstand has been increased in size.

"That will allow us to supply a lot more family entertainment. There is more added value for people coming to the event and we also have added a karting facility."

What's more, fans from last year will see that the whole island has moved on in terms of attractions and infrastructure: "Ferrari World is there and the Yas Links [golf course], so there is a lot more I think that people will see this year."

The circuit had a flawless safety record during last year's Grand Prix - very few cars even left the track during the largely error-free race - but an incident during the opening round of the FIA GT1 World Championship in April has triggered the one significant change to the layout since last November.

During a qualifying lap, Swiss driver Natacha Gachnang failed to make the left-hand turn at the end of the circuit's 1.5 kilometre straight, where the cars typically approach 260kph. A mechanical fault was to blame; brake fluid had leaked onto the pedals and Gachnang's foot slipped onto the throttle, sending her Matech Ford GT into the safety wall and fracturing her right leg in two places.

Nevertheless, says Cregan, "that was something that made us look at safety levels, which we have always done. We increased the run-off area at turn eight as a result of that.

"The rest of the circuit is very much the same apart from the normal maintenance, but generally it has remained the same."

The one thing that was missing from last year's memorable race was that it was a season finale without a climax: Jenson Button had already won the championship by the time he came to Yas Marina.

This year, however, it has been a different story, with five drivers - Button, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso - all fighting for the championship from the off, and an unpredictable season, helped by regulation changes, making it one of the best in recent memory, teeing up a memorable finale at Abu Dhabi, where four of the five are still in contention for the title.

"I think we have had one of the best seasons ever in Formula One to be honest," says Cregan. "I think the season has turned out better than anyone could have expected.

"There were a lot of questions in the beginning because the refuelling was taken away. But what I think it did was focus even more on tyres, tyre strategy and how qualifying was approached.

"To end up with a season finale here is fantastic."



Joggers welcome in the fast lane

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may well be the diamond in Yas Marina Circuit’s crown, but there is plenty going on throughout the other 51 weeks of the year.

Other racing series, including Aussie V8 Supercars, GP2 Asia, the FIA GT1 World Championship, will take place at the track, where drag racing will fill up a lot of the winter schedule.

The circuit has also been opened up to slower forms of transport. As part of a programme designed to encourage more than just motorsport fans to venture on to the island, regular days have been set aside for ordinary motorists to drive their cars around the track, while even cyclists and runners can train there.

“The idea is to pack in as much activity as possible of quality motorsport and also open up the circuit to the community,” says Cregan, who worked for the now defunct Toyota team before coming to Abu Dhabi.

“We want to become part of the community and open up the facility so that people know we are open all year round and there are lots of activities for everybody.

“In the future you may be running around the track training and your family can be over in the karting area having fun or getting tuition, or you could be on the drag-racing circuit. Just something for everybody is the target we have, but with the ultimate aim of getting people involved in motorsport.”