Abu Dhabi – fast-track to future of F1
Motorsport's latest lavish landmark is already winning over drivers – but it's a long way from the romance of Silverstone.
The opulence washes over you like the warmth of the humid 36C air whenever you abandon the solace of air conditioning. Ever since Bernie Ecclestone launched Formula One on its conquest of far-flung climes as distant from Europe as Jim Clark's Lotus is from Lewis Hamilton's McLaren, we have become used to visiting new architectural marvels from circuit designer Hermann Tilke.
First there was Sepang in Malaysia, then Bahrain and Shanghai, New World venues financed with limitless governmental funds. But now there is Yas Marina, which redefines circuit design in a country where £6bn of wealth oozes from the ground – daily. Sources close to Tilke speak of £6bn for the circuit and facilities, with a total cost for the whole Yas Island development closer to £15bn. Ecclestone, the king of F1, yesterday surveyed the new kingdom, 1001 days after greenlighting the race and the investment of 184 million man-hours. "I knew there would be a race, I knew they were committed," he declared. "But I never knew it would be finished like this."
Champion constructor Ross Brawn was equally impressed. "Abu Dhabi has set a new standard in Formula One," he said. "It is absolutely incredible. The commitment and investment is staggering. Really, really impressive and something that the government and country should be extremely proud of."
Khaldoon al Mubarak, the chief executive officer and managing director of Mubadala, whose interests also embrace shareholdings in Ferrari and Manchester City, is the man whose vision created this new masterpiece.
"Monaco, Montreal and Singapore do different things fantastically," he said. "Our hope is that Abu Dhabi can take it to a whole new level. It has everything. It is more than a sport – it is a grand occasion.
"Of course we want to show what we can do to the rest of the world but this is for the people of Abu Dhabi. That is the biggest reason why we brought Formula One here. You can feel the interest in it among the people now, and as the years go on I am sure that will increase."
It's hard to take it all in. There is the Yas Hotel which, at night, shimmers like a multi-coloured jewel thanks to 4,800 roof panels that change colour – from silver to sapphire to amethyst. Tilke vouchsafed that the hotel cost £300m, half of that the roof. Small wonder that all 499 rooms have been booked out to the true high rollers: team principals, drivers and their retinues, sponsors and VIPs, who have 14 restaurants to choose from. The most expensive suites, with private swimming pools and 16-seat dining rooms, would set you back around £5,000 a night.
If the hotel isn't sufficient, the Yas Yacht Club and Shams Tower each provide further distinctive architectural landmarks. And in the background the unfinished shell of what will eventually become the Ferrari World theme park stands like a giant red starfish sentinel. Around the 143 boats that bob, Monaco-like, in the man-made marina threads a spectacular track which Hamilton believes will yield that most elusive gold of racing currency: overtaking.
Even the most cynical have been taken aback by the sheer scale of the investment. And by tomorrow you won't be able to move for the 250 Royal family members and their bodyguards who will be attending, together with A list celebrities that will include singers Beyonce and Jay Kay, Aerosmith and the Kings of Leon. Such a concentration of the rich and famous is never seen outside Monaco, and the Royals will watch the race from an exclusive vantage point inside the bridge that links the two sections of the hotel, under which the track runs.
The drivers themselves generally seemed to love the Yas Marina circuit.
''It looks like we might be quite competitive here,'' said Hamilton. Our long runs appear to be good, the car feels great and the track is great. It's quite interesting coming from daylight into night time, you don't notice the difference through the twilight."
"It's certainly an interesting one," said Button. "When you look at the layout, it doesn't seem that exciting but when you actually drive it, it's fantastic. It has a bit of everything, with high- and low-speed corners, positive and negative camber and the walls are pretty close to you most of the way round."
"Obviously as the track surface is completely new, it was quite dirty, so you have to be a little careful to find your way to begin with,'' said Germany's Nico Rosberg, preparing for his last race for Williams.
So here it is, the future of motorsport, the new milestone by which others will be judged. In comparison, a distant Silverstone seems somehow quaintly archaic, all rain, cut grass and English tea with cucumber sandwiches. "This circuit has a nation behind it," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner pointed out. "Silverstone is a private entity."
Brawn added: "Damon Hill made the point that Formula One and the world championship is so attractive to countries such as Abu Dhabi because of Silverstone's heritage and history and if we destroy that maybe it won't be as attractive, so we need to keep a balance. Places such as this are wonderful, but it would be a tragedy if we lost Silverstone."
Despite the stratospheric spend the 'Monaco of the Middle East' doesn't have everything. Heritage is one thing that money cannot buy, that has to be earned. Silverstone has it in spades, which is why fans will flock there again next year if the BRDC and Ecclestone can work together long enough to pluck the grand prix Phoenix from the Donington flames.
Leading practice times
1 H Kovalainen McLaren 1 min 41.307
2 L Hamilton McLaren 1:41.504
3 J Button Brawn 1:41.541
4 S Vettel RedBull 1:41.591
5 K Kobayashi Toyota 1:41.636
6 S Buemi Toro Rosso 1:41.683
7 M Webber RedBull 1:41.684
8 R Barrichello Brawn 1:41.831
9 N Rosberg Williams 1:41.931
10 K Raikkonen Ferrari 1:41.987
Abu Dhabi GP: In Numbers
Estimated cost, in £m, to build the track
Length in metres of the straight, the longest in Formula 1
Numbers of workers employed to build the track
Spectators expected for the race, less than half who watched the British GP
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