x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Grist for the Grand Prix mill

Budding drivers will get an early look at the new Yas Marina Circuit, providing valuable insight to their F1 counterparts.

Lewis Hamilton of McLaren was one of many Formula One drivers that developed their racing skills in GP2. Others include Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg and Timo Glock.
Lewis Hamilton of McLaren was one of many Formula One drivers that developed their racing skills in GP2. Others include Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg and Timo Glock.

ABU DHABI // For Formula One drivers, the challenges of a new circuit are numerous. Before arriving at the race site, the only practice comes courtesy of a computer simulator, which is no substitute for feeling the strain of every turn and gear change on the track itself.

On the weekend of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (October 30-November 1), however, F1 drivers will have a chance to learn from guinea pigs testing the new Yas Marina Circuit before them. Three other races will be held on Grand Prix weekend, the organisers announced yesterday, which means drivers from other racing series will try out the 5.55km circuit before the likes of F1 drivers Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso.

The most prestigious support race is a round of the GP2 Asia series, seen as one of the biggest stepping stones for prospective F1 drivers. GP2 Asia drivers will also get a "behind closed doors" test of the track in the week before the Grand Prix, and their inside knowledge of the circuit will no doubt prompt plentiful questions from the F1 drivers. One GP2 driver, Bruno Senna, the nephew of the legendary F1 driver Ayrton Senna, said the anticipation and trepidation about the circuit would be such that F1 drivers would be begging for information about its particular challenges from those who had driven it before them.

The track, he thought, should ensure an open race and possibly catch drivers unaware. "The circuit impressed me very much," he said. "I was there yesterday; obviously I couldn't go very fast because there were people working on the track. "There are some fast corners and tight, technical parts which are going to provide very good racing. I am looking forward to racing here." Senna, who is expected to claim an F1 seat for the 2010 season, told reporters yesterday that GP2 would offer spectators a glimpse of a sport just as exciting as F1. GP2 cars can reach speeds of 320kph, but generally race at more than 200kph.

"It is extremely competitive," said Senna, who drove for the iSport International team in GP2 last year. "You can see from the likes of [F1 drivers] Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg and Timo Glock that it produces quality drivers." Also on the schedule for the grand prix weekend is the Porsche Mobil1 Supercup, which features up to 26 modified Porsche 911s competing in the only series to run as an official support race to F1. Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 supremo, said the event was "an important part of F1 now".

The third event is the Chevrolet Supercars Middle East Challenge, which will pit eight so-called "gentlemen drivers", most likely members of automobile and touring clubs, in modified Chevrolet Lumina CSV saloons, against eight professionals, who will drive superior versions of the car. Tarek Elgammal, an Egyptian-Australian driver in the competition, said he expected the Chevrolet cars to be challenged by the tight corners of the Yas Marina Circuit, a feature that the lighter, single-seat F1 cars were better designed to navigate.

"We will have completely different challenges to the single-seaters. They are going to have it easy, we are going to have it really tough," he said. "The circuit, looking at it, has a lot of passing opportunities but with this comes opportunities for damage and chaos. We are going to be in for an exciting race." For spectators, the support races will be a glimpse of what is to come later in the main event. Entry for the three other races is included in the ticket for the Grand Prix, said Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management (ADMM), the race organisers.

The running order of the weekend has yet to be finalised, although one of the support races is likely to be the first official competition on the new circuit. Some unofficial GP2 racing will take place before that. Throughout October, a series of training days will be held for about 250 marshals who will be working on the race weekend. One of the exercises will involve up to 26 of the GP2 Asia drivers competing in a private test session during the weekend before the grand prix to allow marshals to work in a real race environment.

"It is an ideal time for the GP2 teams to test their cars and the circuit as well. There will be a huge amount to learn," said Ronan Morgan, who will be the chief clerk of the circuit. "This will be real hands-on stuff, with real race cars in a real situation on the actual track. It's going to be invaluable." Mr Morgan said he expected "a lot of F1 teams speaking to the GP2 drivers about the circuit" following their practice sessions.

Richard Cregan, the chief executive of ADMM, said between six and eight other high-profile races would take place during the year, outside the F1 weekend. Work on the circuit, which is scheduled to be handed over to ADMM by the developers, Aldar, in the coming week, is progressing at pace on Yas Island, Mr Cregan said. Talal al Dhiyebi, Aldar's director of planning and infrastructure, said: "We are 66 days from one of the biggest sporting events that Abu Dhabi has witnessed. A lot of work has been going on in the background it is nearly finished."

Seven buildings along the race track are already fully powered by the electricity grid, Mr al Dhiyebi said. More than 7,000 hotel staff are in Abu Dhabi to prepare for the opening of the island's seven hotels. rhughes@thenational.ae * additional reporting by Bradley Hope