Abu Dhabi is opening a new chapter in Formula One history

Intense rivalry and a return to Yas Marina Circuit will make this year's Grand Prix memorable

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton drives ahead of Red Bull's Max Verstappen at the Yas Marina Circuit during the second free practice session of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix. AFP
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Stakes are high in Formula One. Drivers hit speeds of up to 370 kilometres an hour and experience g-forces similar to those felt by fighter pilots. All this takes place under the constant threat of crashes that write off cars worth millions.

But drama at this year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be particularly intense, as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen find themselves on level points going into the 22nd and final race on Sunday. It has made for one of the most watchable rivalries in the sport's recent history.

This suspense is somewhat familiar for the UAE because Abu Dhabi has been home to generation-defining drama before. In Yas Marina Circuit's very first year, 2009, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber's astonishing one-two finish began a period of domination for team Red Bull.

This year's tension is so great that it is pushing the boundaries of normal competitive rivalry into what some say could be unsportsmanlike behaviour. Both Hamilton and Verstappen have been told that they risk getting disqualified from the championship, possibly even next year's, if they drive dangerously. In this season, they have already been involved in two race-ending crashes, one of which put Verstappen in hospital, and during a news conference on Thursday both drivers ruled out clear-the-air talks. But with great rivalry comes great competition, and we might well be on the cusp of a new era in F1, just as happened 12 years ago in Abu Dhabi.

This is the drama set to entertain vast crowds at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit. They deserve it. The pandemic put last year's race behind closed doors, depriving fans of access to a home of F1 in the Middle East. This year, tickets are sold out.

The competition is in constant evolution and recent changes to the north hairpin, the south marina section and "hotel corner", are, according Saif Al Noaimi, deputy chief executive of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM), part of an effort to allow more "wheel-to-wheel racing" and generally enhance the spectator experience. Beyond the race, guests have one of the sport's most advanced venues, with world-famous artists performing at concerts in the evening.

The progress of the circuit over the past 12 years matches the wider development of Yas Island, a part of Abu Dhabi that is central to plans to grow the emirate's tourism sector. Its steady growth was disrupted over the pandemic, but today recovery is in full swing. In June, Abu Dhabi hotel occupancy recovered to February 2020 levels. This pace is remarkable, considering that just a year ago the island was largely shut off to the rest of the world due to measures against the spread of Covid-19.

Those watching this week's races, then, are not just part of one of the most memorable moments in F1 history, but a wider recovery for the sport after a pandemic that locked spectators out of stadiums for more than a year. Abu Dhabi will be part of this transition for years to come; just last week, ADMM and the Formula One Group signed a deal for the emirate to host the same Grand Prix until 2030. The message from this year's championship, then, is simple: F1's journey in the UAE and Middle East is accelerating at blistering speed.

Published: December 12, 2021, 3:00 AM
Updated: January 13, 2022, 8:25 AM