Into the finishing straight ...

Work on the Yas Island Formula 1 circuit and surrounding infrastructure has received an unexpected boost from the economic slowdown.

Abu Dhabi - March 2, 2009:  Yas Hotel on Yas Island.  *** Local Caption ***  YasHotel.jpg
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ABU DHABI // The distinctive form of the emerging Ferrari World theme park looms high above the crowd gathered on Yas Island. One Aldar employee peers at a detail on the vast, dome-like structure. "That wasn't there yesterday," he says. "I'm sure it wasn't..." Such is the pace of development on Yas Island that anyone returning after a week away may find the place has changed notably. When The National visited in late October, the circuit was little more than a rocky track, while most buildings were still only shells surrounded by cranes. Now, with 60 per cent of the project complete, the progress made since then is striking.

The focus, of course, is on the Yas Marina Circuit, which will host the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Nov 1, and, while bitumen has been laid on only a portion of the 5.55km-long track, the circuit is taking shape. Around the course, landscaping work is well under way - aided, somewhat surprisingly for an island that yesterday was enveloped by a thick sandstorm, by a considerable amount of imported sand.

While the landscape is far from the luscious green featured in all the promotional material for the race, work on completing the Yas Marina Circuit is undoubtedly entering the home straight. Unexpectedly, progress on the ambitious project has also been given a boost by the global economic crisis. Companies that had been committed to other building projects found themselves with less on the calendar as those jobs were cancelled or delayed over recent months. At a time when it cannot and must not fail to meet the deadline for the Formula One race, Aldar has gratefully accepted the work.

"The economy has affected us, but positively," said Stephen Worrell, Aldar's project director on Yas Island. "When the market was overheated, trying to get the resources was a lot more difficult." Now, however, "resources have naturally become more available". Mr Worrell insisted no resources or staff had been diverted from other Aldar projects to ensure the completion of the circuit. "It is going full-blast now and the manpower is still increasing. It was a lot more difficult to find manpower six months ago but now there is much less pressure."

The downturn has also provided an unanticipated financial bonus: "Six months ago, trying to get one or two companies to bid was very difficult. Now, there is no difficulty in getting multiple bidders or competitive prices and the prices are definitely coming down." Despite this, Mr Worrell said Aldar had never been concerned it might miss the deadline: "Was there any ever doubt about delivering this on time? Is it easy? No. Is it going to be taken kicking and screaming right on up to the finish line? Yes. But all projects are like that."

In late October, 20,000 workers were on site. Now there are more than 37,000 people, including 1,000 at Aldar's office on the island. The circuit is, according to Mr Worrell, "Aldar's number one priority", and quite probably the priority of Abu Dhabi and the UAE's entire construction industry. Six major hotels are close to completion around a large plaza a few minutes' walk from two of the largest grandstands. Three will be five-star hotels: the Crowne Plaza, Rotana and the first Radisson SAS hotel in Abu Dhabi. The four-star Staybridge Suites, run by the InterContinental group, will also open on the island, as will two three-star hotels, the Park Inn and Centro by Rotana, a new budget chain for the Middle East.

The centrepiece is the five-star, 500-room Yas Marina Hotel, through which part of the track will run. It will be covered in thousands of LED panels that will change colour at night and alter direction during the day to best reflect the sun at all times. This is the flagship enterprise of the new Aldar Hotels and Hospitality chain and, much like the Burj al Arab in Dubai, will be accessible only by a bridge and only to guests with reservations for a room or restaurant table. Around 40 per cent of its guests, who will be able to watch the race from their rooms, are expected to be VVIPs.

Visitors will be able to arrive on Yas Island either via a six-lane tunnel and bridge from the mainland, or by yacht, if they are so inclined; the hotel is surrounded by the marina, which will be deep enough to accommodate the largest superyachts and will be flooded in May. It is not yet known whether the Saadiyat-to-Shahama highway, which will connect Yas Island to Abu Dhabi Island, will be completed in time for the race.

Ferrari World, a gigantic structure resembling a mushroom that has grown legs and which will feature attractions such as rollercoasters and a G-force ride that will project participants up and out of the centre of the building, will certainly appear ready by the time F1 fans descend on Abu Dhabi at the end of October. It will, however, be strictly off-limits to the estimated 50,000 daily spectators; it will be a few years before the park is truly ready. "Our goal is that it will look completed, but the rides and attractions will not be complete," said Mr Worrell. "It will still be in construction mode."

The track itself, however, should be complete by the end of August, just two months before the first F1 cars are due to roll out for their practice sessions on Oct 30. Despite the global economic crisis, said Mr Worrell, delaying Yas Marina Circuit was not an option. "We have a fixed end-date and what is unique about this project is that, while a lot of other projects can be delayed or you can move them, we have to finish all that is required for the F1 as per the schedule."

Meanwhile, the buzz about the race is growing on site, even as much of it is obscured in dust. "Everybody is happy and excited to be part of it," said Mr Worrell. "It is a very difficult project but everybody here has a very positive attitude, an 'I want to do it and I can do it' attitude."