Abu Dhabi roars to fifth Formula One Grand Prix success

Abu Dhabi is once again home to the world’s premier motorsport event, the Formula One Grand Prix. Now celebrating five years hosting the event, the wide-ranging benefits have boosted tourism and the local economy.

Fans come from all over the world to see the world's best drivers. Christopher Pike / The National
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The scream of high-powered engines will reveberate around Yas Island today as the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit – the only twilight race on the F1 calendar – gets underway today.

And there could be no better track to hold it at – something Abu Dhabi and the F1 racing community would no doubt attest to following four eventful years at Yas Marina.

The drivers agree.

“The circuit and the whole Yas Marina complex are so impressive and racing from the sunshine into the twilight is quite special,” the former world champion Lewis Hamilton, lying fourth in the driver’s championship ahead of today’s race, told F1.com.

“The Abu Dhabi weekend is a real favourite of mine and it’s a great event for the fans, our partners and the team,” says fellow racer Nico Rosberg, currently in sixth.

With the track running alongside the island’s spectacular marina; passing under the 5-star Yas Marina Hotel and alongside a 70-metre Sun Tower, it’s efficiency had been widely admired by the organisers and the spectators, often referring to the circuit as the “Monaco of Middle East”. Taking inspiration from the city-state, the circuit was built on the 25.5 square kilometre Yas Island which includes large scale commercial and residential development.

“The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is undoubtedly one of the highlights on the Formula One calendar and a weekend that everyone at the team always enjoys,” says Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team principal who is reportedly set to leave the outfit.

“The wonderful facilities at the Yas Marina Circuit make for quite a spectacular show, both for the crowds at the track and for those watching on television.”

The circuit was built by the main contractor Cebarco-WCT, under contract from the local developer Aldar Properties.

The circuit was constructed with a permanent lighting system provided by Musco Lighting, similar to that also installed at the Losail Circuit in Qatar. Yas Marina Circuit is the largest permanent sports venue lighting project in the world; previously that title was held by Losail.

The Brazilian Bruno Senna, the nephew of late three-times F1 world champion Aryton Senna, provided his insight on the track after testing the circuit back in 2009, “Yes it will be like Monaco when the boats are in there, but it’s much more modern than Monaco, the architecture is much more modern. There are some beautiful buildings here, like the Shams Tower, and the hotel which is like a bridge over the circuit.”

When it was first held in the capital in 2009, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had one novel feature never seen before in Formula One. That race was the first ever F1 day/night GP.

To achieve that unique accolade, technical and economic hurdles had to be overcome and the huge global popularity of the event shows that was successfully done.

Organisers are optimistic about the numbers expected to turn up at the Yas Marina circuit this year, suggesting approximately 55,000 spectators per day would attend the festivities after the capacity was increased by 10 per cent, making for a sell-out weekend.

“Our aim is for 42 per cent of ticket sales to come from visitors living outside the UAE,” says Al Tareq Al Ameri, the senior director of Commercial activities at the Yas Marina Circuit, which is operated Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management.

The combination of exciting on-track action and first-class entertainment gives the Abu Dhabi GP a unique charm. The numerous artists and celebrities drifting past the stands on the track and in the paddock as the teams prepare for the start is testament to the number and quality of performances throughout the weekend.

But has the cost of putting on such a showstopper been worth it?

Christian Sylt, the co-author of Formula Money, an annual report examining all facets of finances involved with Formula One, gets right to the point – it is a win-win situation for both F1 and the host nation.

“The key driver of the growth [of F1] is the fees that come from the circuits [$500 million],” says Mr Sylt.

“Most of these contracts include clauses that increase the rate by up to 10 per cent annually. It’s a clever strategy because if you look at the secrets to F1’s success you can identify several key points. The move to Asia is one.”

He goes on to explain what was behind the inclusion of cities from the emerging world.

“It wasn’t done out of desire, it was much more out of necessity, although I’m sure [Bernie] Ecclestone would say he wanted to go to these countries. Maybe he did.”

Mr Ecclestone, a British billionaire, is the president and chief executive of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration and a part-owner of Alpha Prema, the parent of the Formula One Group of ­companies.

“The F1 calendar is restricted to 20 races a year – teams refuse to agree to more races – which makes it difficult to exponentially increase revenues,” Mr Sylt says.

“So what Mr Ecclestone did was take races to emerging markets. It became apparent to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, China, India and South Korea that hosting a Formula One race is a good way to put their country on the global sporting map. F1 is the most watched sport in the world – 500 million viewers a year – so this is a good way to get your country seen on TV, drive tourism and make yourself look credible alongside other sporting nations.”

His argument is backed up by data from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture authority in collaboration with the World Tourism Organisation that show an increase of 37 per cent in guest arrivals in August compared with the same month last year, with hotel occupancy increasing by 17 per cent.

This raised the total revenue for hotel establishments for August by 32 per cent on August last year to Dh336m. Total revenue generated by hotel guests in the first six months of this year rose by 17 per cent compared with the same period last year from Dh2.8bn to Dh3.3bn.

The race itself has a major impact on tourism figures, too.

Last year, Abu Dhabi Airports Company reported a 17.3 per cent increase in passenger traffic in November compared with the same month in 2011, which was predominantly attributed to the F1.

And with various events taking place during the race weekend, the city has managed to keep almost everyone engaged. With events such as the Fifa U-17 World Cup, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Yasalam Festival, along with theme parks such as Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld in close proximity and Dubai being just a 90-minute drive away, there is always something for visitors to do.

Additionally, top firms in the country have involved themselves in various sponsorships deals, realising the global appeal of Formula One – Emaar being the latest of the bunch.

“Our partnership with the Lotus F1 Team, a remarkable team with impeccable credentials in the racing circuit, is therefore a perfect fit to our own values,” says the Emaar chairman Mohammed Alabbar.

“As they race at the Formula 1 Championship circuits across the world, we are truly honoured to extend our support to the Lotus F1 Team, while also engaging with our international clientele and further defining the global identity of our brand.”

The Abu Dhabi GP gives the world a high-class, exciting and engaging window through which the city and the country can promote their unique appeal.

And it is not likely to lose speed any time soon.