Abu Dhabi's new baby roars into life

Everyone knew to expect it and yet they were still surprised. Few things compare with the noise of a Formula One car.

ABU DHABI. 30th October. 2009. ABU DHABI GRAND PRIX. FRIDAY A young fan gets some tips from his mother Stephen Lock   /   The National   *** Local Caption ***  SL-gpfri-010.jpg
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YAS MARINA CIRCUIT // "I didn't know it was going to be that loud," said Nouf al Othman, a 21-year-old Saudi volunteer at the Yas Marina Circuit. "You feel it vibrate in your hands. It is that loud." Everyone knew to expect it and yet they were still surprised. Few things compare with the noise of a Formula One car, yet many try to find a way of describing what they have just heard. Most of those interviewed yesterday were F1 novices getting their first experience of the sights, sounds and smells of the sport.

The five grandstands at Yas are so close to the action on the track that all those senses are heightened compared with most other circuits. Visitors to the Yas Marina Circuit on Thursday had seen the F1 cars sitting sedately in their garages. Yesterday, the vehicles were far less restrained - unleashed for the first time on the 5.55km circuit and in front of an awed public. "I felt like a six-year-old at Christmas," said Roberto Lamastus, 32, a pilot from Panama who travelled from Qatar to see the race.

"The sounds, the sights, the smells - it all clicked. It is way better than my expectations. It is a lot faster, a lot noisier than what I was used to watching on television." "It is unbelievable to hear the noise of an F1 engine," said Ian Bryant, a 24-year-old New Zealander living in London who was visiting his mother in Al Ain. "I have been waiting to hear it for a long time. It is deafening."

When a group of GP2 cars took to the track soon after 10.30am, they were the first to race competitively on the circuit. Their historic lap was witnessed by a handful of fans who had made the early trip to Yas. Those who did arrive were given a taste of what was to come: the freshness of the track, and the resulting lack of grip due to the lack of tyres that had driven upon it, saw a number of cars skid at some of the circuit's 21 corners. A few F1 cars later followed suit.

As the temperature rose from 28C to 36C over the course of the afternoon, the fans trickled in. By the time the first F1 driver went out, the stands were perhaps an eighth full - not a poor turnout for the first session of a grand prix. In reality, it was an unspectacular first lap. Mark Webber, the Red Bull driver, disappeared into the pit lane tunnel, completed the almost 90-degree turn and emerged from the pit lane exit. He finished a solitary lap and returned to the pit lane.

Others, including Webber, will complete quicker laps of the Yas Marina Circuit. But few will complete one that was as significant. It heralded the first action of at least seven grand prix races scheduled for the island, although there will almost certainly be more. The drivers retired from the blazing midday sun, tweaks were made to the cars in the garages and, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon, the circuit underwent a notable change in atmosphere in the lead-up to the second practice session at 5pm. As the temperature fell to the low 30s, the number of fans streaming in through the Yas gates swelled.

Longer shadows cast by the grandstands drew more people out of the sun and into the F1 Village, a collection of stores, eateries and performance areas that run parallel to each stand. At this point, the famed carnival atmosphere of Formula One came to life. In the distance, a singer repeated that "We are making it happen" from the stage, although the point was not lost on anyone. African drummers played, a man performed gravity-defying tricks with a football and children drove around a tiny circuit on tiny Porsches, all the while avoiding tiny model camels.

As the drivers emerged for the 5pm practice sessions, the floodlights were on. Their presence became more visible by the minute as the sun dipped. Rather than dazzle the spectator, they served to highlight in finer detail what was happening beneath them. Television cameras lapped up the image of the 145 yachts moored in and around the marina, and those on board were among the most privileged yesterday, in terms of finances and the view.

On a row of boats looking directly on to the section of track that runs underneath the Yas Hotel, fans sat in spa baths on board the yachts which, although almost 40 metres in length, were modest by comparison with some of the more expensive craft. Everyone following the race from the U-shaped marina was bombarded by the noise of cars roaring through the section. "There is nothing like it," said Antonio Carucci, the captain of a new 31-metre yacht moored barely 25 metres from the closest cars.

"I can't compare it with any other noise. It is totally different. "Maybe in the F1 world, there are only two other places like this - Monaco and Singapore." Yesterday provided the first test of whether the track was up to scratch, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. It was not the first test, however, of the logistics of Yas Island. In fact, the small number of fans barely amounted to a test of the traffic, parking and catering facilities. Every few steps, abaya-clad volunteers were on hand to direct race-goers.

The first examination proper took place a day earlier at the end of the Beyoncé concert at Ferrari World, when close to 25,000 people left at the same time, leading to long queues for shuttle buses and a host of previously happy concert-goers being left considerably less so. Moods were calmer yesterday afternoon. Compared with many other sports, F1 tends to attract a more refined, and less rowdy, breed of fan. This was no more in evidence than in the mild consternation expressed by some fans turned away from the refreshments tent at the main grandstand when they were told the electricity had failed.

But with Formula One action yesterday came F1 prices, enough to raise anyone's hackles. Those who had paid a premium to get what are often touted as the best seats in the main grandstand faced paying Dh25 for a chicken shawarma or a falafel sandwich - roughly five times the price on the streets of Abu Dhabi island. A glossy brochure for the race set fans back a cool Dh50 (US$13.60) and anyone wanting to pass for a member of the Ferrari pit crew by buying a replica shirt would have to shell out Dh520. The same product for the championship-winning, but less well established Brawn GP team cost Dh200 less.

Living the life of a dedicated F1 fan is not cheap, but the prices come with the territory. "I am going to have one chance every year to get things like this," said Chris Espley, 26, a Scottish telecoms consultant living in Dubai, as he bought a McLaren shirt. "The price doesn't really matter." rhughes@thenational.ae dbardsley@thenational.ae * with additional reporting by Matt Kwong, John Henzell and Tahira Yaqoob