More than 100 motorists followed in the treadmarks of Formula 1 drivers yesterday at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit's first public track day.
Yas Marina circuit opens to the public
ABU DHABI // The two friends were midway through their first session on the Yas Marina Circuit when a flashing light on the dashboard of their red Mustang GT threatened to end their fun early.
"The petrol tank said zero kilometres to empty," said Lee Irvine, standing next to his car in the paddock at the circuit. "We were about halfway round and I said let's just get off because that would be really embarrassing." A top-up with petrol at the circuit's fuel station eased their minds and got them back on track again and clocking speeds of up to 220kmph. And there was no doubt, they were won over by the overall experience.
"After seeing the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, to drive on the track is incredible," said Mr Irvine, 28, a lawyer from London. "I've been texting all my friends. I think Lewis Hamilton should be studying my tapes." Mr Irvine and his friend Joff Cowling-Bryant, who live in Abu Dhabi, were among about 60 drivers taking part in the morning sessions of the first public track day at the circuit yesterday. A second group arrived in the afternoon, bringing the number of people who registered for the day to more than 100.
Drivers paid up to Dh1,000 (US$272) for a full-day session, with additional costs for hiring a helmet, having an additional driver or carrying a passenger. Some opted to let an expert do the driving, and paid Dh350 to be taken around the track in a Nissan GTR. An F1 two-seater was available for Dh11,500. A wide range of vehicles - from race-ready Porsche Cup cars and a turbo-charged, two-seater known as the KTM X-Bow, to a Ford SUV and a Nissan Sunny - were matched by varying degrees of driving experience and ability.
There were first-timers, excited to be among the first to follow in the tracks of F1 world champion Jenson Button and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel. They mingled with professionals eager to test their cars ahead of racing season. "The great thing with a day like today is we give people the chance to come out and experience the F1 track for themselves," said Richard Cregan, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management. "They are going to come back here and be familiar with the circuit. They are going to improve their time, and then they will start to feel that it is becoming what we set out - that it is their track."
Fahed al Mulla, 29, was among those thrilled by the chance to use the track. "We were waiting for something like this to happen in Abu Dhabi," said Mr al Mulla, an Emirati who works in finance for Aldar Properties. "Rather than people racing on the streets they can come here and race. I am spending money on my car and I cannot drive it." Mr al Mulla said he had spent more than Dh100,000 in modifications for his Mitsubishi Evolution and would like to see the track open to the public more often. The one female driver, Nadine Berdury, 50, from Abu Dhabi, described her 180kmph ride in her grey Porsche Cayman as "fun".
Mr Cregan said the plan was to have at least one track day per month. Following a comprehensive safety briefing, drivers were allowed on the track for up to six half-hour driving sessions. The experienced drivers went first, followed by novices like Mr Irvine, who had to follow a pace car during his first session but was allowed to push more in those that followed. Cameras and track marshals were on hand to ensure that drivers were on good behaviour and were ready to respond quickly to any incidents. There were plenty of smiling faces and two people went so far as to say it was "an honour" to be able to use the track.
Professionals such as Saad Salman, 29, a Palestinian driver for Sayat Racing, who is practising in his KTM X-Bow ahead of the 2010-11 season, said he was impressed with the event's organisation. When a car suffered engine failure on the track, he said, it was quickly removed and the session was able to resume. "We were worried a bit. Having expensive race cars, we generally try to avoid coming to open events for the public," he said. "When you mix inexperienced drivers with much faster drivers, the speed difference is what is actually dangerous. But today seems to be very well run and any incidents were responded to quickly."
As the "novice" drivers enjoyed themselves, they were learning a little more about how to control their vehicles and becoming better drivers, said Shahid Baloch, the Pakistani vice-president of Porsche Club UAE. "When you are on the roads you certainly have a better understanding of what your car can do, particularly braking and handling," he said. "That can only make you a safer driver on the road." For information on track days and other events visit www.yasmarinacircuit.com