Fans and celebrities congregate at Abu Dhabi F1 in time for the big race

The paddocks were a hive of activity at the Yas Marina Circuit

American rapper, singer and record producer Will.i.am arrives for the the Pit Lane Walk at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
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You didn't have to look at the Yas Marina Circuit track to know the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix was heating up in the hours leading up to Sunday's final race.

Signs that the event's high point was nearing could be seen in the sky, with helicopters, carrying celebrities and dignitaries, landing frequently at the entrance of the exclusive Paddock Club.

This was in addition to the F1’s official “TV helicopter” emitting a constant buzz as it careened around the circuit capturing footage for a global audience.

Another sign that things were officially near boiling point was the groups of people crowding around the track's paddocks as they waited for their F1 heroes to enter their respective garages.

F1 fan Franscesca Allen flew in from London to experience the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix. Saeed Saeed/The National

Standing amid one of these congregations outside the Red Bull section was Francesca Allen. While wearing the signature red top of the Ferrari team, she was more than happy to wait around for a glimpse of this year’s champion, Max Verstappen.

An avid F1 fan, she flew in from London on Wednesday to experience the Abu Dhabi GP. “I went to races in Imola (San Marino), Spa (Belgium) and Silverstone (UK) and I can definitely say the Abu Dhabi one has its own atmosphere,” she tells The National.

“It is very international, so you find a lot of drivers being supported, which is nice to see. This is different than in other places where there are definitely one or two drivers being supported by a home crowd.”

Allen describes Abu Dhabi as representing the new modern face of Formula One.

“A lot of the other locations, such as Silverstone for example, come with this long and amazing tradition, which I think is great,” she says.

“But with Abu Dhabi it just feels fresh because there is all the great food, restaurants and concerts every night. Also the fact the layout is quite easy to navigate makes it fun for anyone to experience.”

Our conversation was cut short with the sight of Verstappen making his way to the garage, only slowing down to allow the waiting crowd to take photos of a champion at work.

Further up the paddock, another crowd circled a flamboyant figure clad in a white suit and orange glasses.

It took me a while to realise who he was because I am used to seeing him in red: former Manchester United footballer Patrice Evra. Speaking to The National, he explained that he was on the circuit to take a victory lap of his own.

“I just signed an agreement to create my own content company in Abu Dhabi,” he says. “I feel very excited because this feels like a new chapter for me and to do it here in the UAE, which has been my home for two years, is what makes it special.”

The UAE’s event landscape has evolved rapidly, says Evra. “If we look at Formula One here in Abu Dhabi, we are not just talking about sports,” he says. “There are people from all walks of life and business people. This is because you feel very welcome here and it's one of the safest places in the world. These thing make a huge difference.”

Ex Manchester United football player Patrice Evra at the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix. Saeed Saeed/The National

This is a sentiment echoed by Dominic Vesely and Joseph Gattermier, self-described “tech heads,” who work for a cryptocurrency company in the Czech Republic.

According to the duo, the Abu Dhabi F1 is home to a large gathering of the industry’s movers and shakers.

“Everyone that you need to meet from the crypto world is here this weekend in Abu Dhabi,” Vesely says. “So, it was worth it for us to make the investment, come here and have those meetings, while enjoying the atmosphere of the race at the same time.”

Not everyone was here for the schmoozing though. Diehard F1 fans were out in full force in the paddock.

Moko, the Senegalese fan famous for not having missed a single Formula One race since in 1979, was spotted chatting with friends and officials. Also present was Black Eyed Peas rapper Will.i.am taking a pit lane walk.

Meanwhile, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton’s physiotherapist and confidante Angela Cullen was swamped by fans eager to take a snap of the New Zealander, who some fans have dubbed as the “Lewis whisperer”.

And just as they quickly gathered throughout the day, the crowds dispersed to their suites and stadium seats in the minutes leading to the 5pm race.

One of the last to head into the Paddock Club was Evra, who seemingly never tired of posing for selfies or sharing his thoughts on England’s chances at the World Cup (“They will do very well,”) beginning later in the day. “I just feel blessed man,” he tells me.

“I am here meeting new people and having a great time. It feels amazing to be in a city where everyone wants the best for everyone.”

The drivers parade at the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix — in pictures

Updated: November 20, 2022, 2:31 PM
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