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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Festival atmosphere as fans make the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a night to remember

“I’m lucky it’s winter. I heard in summer it’s a little bit hot," said race fan Sicelo Phakathi

Aermacchi MB-339 jets from UAE's Al-Fursan display team perform with an Etihad Airways' Airbus A380 before the start of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit. AFP
Aermacchi MB-339 jets from UAE's Al-Fursan display team perform with an Etihad Airways' Airbus A380 before the start of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit. AFP

Whether it was 500 Dutchmen dressed in fluorescentorange or a fleet of Emirati dancers twirling bamboo canes, thousands of fans from around the world joined gathered at Yas Island today to celebrate the final Formula 1 race of the season.

Sicelo Phakathi came to the Formula 1 alone. The South African had booked his ticket too early, in March, planning to come with friends. They cancelled.

It is Mr Phakathi’s first time travelling abroad.

“It’s a nice experience because you get lost constantly, in both cities,” said Mr Phakathi, who is 35 and from Durban. “It’s an amazing experience. I’m learning the city, both cities, thanks to my phone. I’ve never walked so much in my life.”

He had waited too late to book his tickets and showed up Sunday without a pass, hoping he would be lucky for the final race of the season.

“I like Hamilton so that’s why I’m actually here,” he said. “I’m lucky it’s winter. I heard in summer it’s a little bit hot.”

Satriagama Rakantaseta came from Indonesia with a life-size sculpture of an F1 car made of reclaimed wood by Indonesian artist Ichwan Noor.

“We are so happy to be here because the crowd is different,” said Mr Pakantaseta, Noor’s manager, pointing at the crowd who sat on the wooden car to pose for photos. “Usually it’s a museum or a gallery.”

Ton and Connie Cremers came with company. They travelled with 540 other Dutch F1 fans to support the Belgian-Dutch racing driver Max Verstappen, just as they travelled decades ago to support his father Jos.

Sahara Force India's pit crew, pictured in their distinctive pink race suits and bobble hats, at the Yas Marina Circuit. Christopher Pike / The National
Sahara Force India's pit crew, pictured in their distinctive pink race suits and bobble hats, at the Yas Marina Circuit. Christopher Pike / The National

“It’s the atmosphere,” said Mr Cremers. “We love the noise. It the past it used to be more noisy than it is now, so they should get that noise back.”

Ton wore a bright orange Fedora, polyester vest and matching bell bottoms. His wife wore matching trousers and boa while their friends, Marie Jose and Bert Van Den Tillaart wore curly orange wigs and 70s-inspired polyester suits.

Stephanie Persoon came to the Formula One with her boyfriend Jesse Demandt, who had one an Etihad Airways contest through his knowledge of F1 trivia.

“I thought there would be a lot of rich people, and there are,” said Ms Persoon, 23, when asked her impression of Abu Dhabi. Most of their weekend holiday had been spent on Yas Island at Ferrari World, at the water park, at the F1 concerts.

That morning, Ms Persoon had put on an abaya for their visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. At the F1, she wrapped a flag of her Netherlands hometown, Geleen, around her shoulders.

It took a lot to be noticed in the grandstands.

A race fan pictured with promotional staff at theYas Marina Circuit.Christopher Pike / The National
A race fan pictured with promotional staff at theYas Marina Circuit.Christopher Pike / The National

Some came prepared, in trainers and floppy hats. Some came to be seen, in five inch tall heels and five inch long earrings and very little else. There were jumpsuits and catsuits, men who wore Danish flags and German flags like robes. Others made a sartorial tribute to Abu Dhabi, pairing a ghutra with an alabaster suit or a white turban with a cream sundress.

At the Fan Zone, visitor tested their fitness, raced to change tyres or posed for a photos with a trophy and a pretty girl.

“I didn’t expect it to be so Western,” said her boyfriend.

Most of the crowd had flown in from Europe for the weekend, like Inger Mäenpää, who had come to the F1 from Finland with her husband Jouni Ahlholm. Her husband had turned 60 in September and this was his birthday present. “Great present,” he said.

They had toured the country too. “We saw the high tower, the malls of the Emirates and the mall of Dubai,” said Ms Mäenpää, 57.

Leaning over the edge of the grandstands, they waved two Finnish flags for the two Finnish drivers, Kimi-Matias Räikkönen and Valtteri Bottas. Ms Mäenpää wore a blue and white stripped dress. Mr Ahlhom wore his Ferrari baseball cap.

“Every race is a surprise and you never know what comes,” he said.