Racing towards the finishing line

Aldar Properties is racing to build a Formula One racetrack, marina, seven hotels, a golf course and a theme park.

An artist's illustration of Yas Island.
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On the dirt road to Yas Island last week, drivers came upon a large sign that read: "Total man-hours worked to date: 26,447,598." Aldar Properties is racing against time to build a Formula One racetrack, marina, seven hotels, a golf course and an enormous theme park called Ferrari World on a 2,500-hectare island just off the shore of Al Raha Beach. The deadline cannot be moved by even a few days: the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is on Nov 15 next year.

"We can't afford to miss a date," said Ronald Barrott, the chief executive of Aldar. "We will be ready." A quarter of Aldar's labour force is at work on the island including some 18,000 construction workers operating around the clock in two shifts. The skyline is broken by jutting cranes, an asphalt plant and the skeletons of the structures that are rising by the day. At night the entire island is illuminated by banks of powerful floodlights while the work continues.

Part of Abu Dhabi's Plan 2030, the US$40bn (Dh146.9bn) Yas Island has been designated a centre for leisure in the new capital, framed by enough homes for a population of about 120,000 around its edges. Aldar has revealed that the 5.8km racetrack will use 20 corners to snake around the southern part of the island, stretching alongside the new marina and featuring a straight where drivers will reach a top speed of 320km/h. Any other details about the track have remained a closely guarded secret, with Mr Barrott conceding only that "there are things on this racecourse different from any other course in the world".

Last month, Abu Dhabi was awarded a slot in next year's Formula One Grand Prix. It will be the 19th and final race in the championship, as well as Abu Dhabi's debut into motorsports. The details of the event fall under the aegis of the newly-established Abu Dhabi Motor Sport Management (ADMM), chaired by Khaldoon al Mubarak, the chairman also of the Executive Affairs Authority and Mubadala Development. After Bahrain, Abu Dhabi is the second Formula 1 circuit in the Middle East.

The island is one of the most fastest-paced construction sites in the Gulf, said Simon Harden, the managing director of Waterman International, an engineering firm that is working on two of the hotels. "Deadlines are very tight on a lot of projects in the Gulf but this one is the ultimate," he said. "We cannot fail." The challenge of co-ordinating the 54 contracting companies and 66 consulting firms is immense. The major contractors meet twice a week in a large campus of temporary offices to examine progress and compare notes.

"We have to make decisions very quickly," Mr Harden said. "All the parties are working very closely and very fast." An engineering choice that would take weeks on another project is completed in days, he said. "You have to react on a dime." All seven hotels, with a combined total of about 2,250 rooms, must be open in time for the race, to accommodate the teams, the sponsors and their guests, and thousands of visitors who will fly from all over the world to watch the race. Hotel management contracts have so far been awarded to several international companies, including Staybridge Suites, Intercontinental Crowne Plaza and Radisson.

Ferrari World, a 200,000-square metre building in the middle of the island, will not be fully operational by the time of the first Grand Prix but the structure will be in place and the interior space used for exhibitions. Eventually it will include a 70m-high "G-Force tower", twin roller-coasters that "race", a go-karting area and an 18-screen cinema theatre. The building will also house the headquarters for the Ferrari Driving and Racing School.

The second phase of Yas Island, which will be finished by 2014, will comprise a range of residential and other leisure facilities. To the west of Ferrari World will be a Warner Brothers theme park and a 12-acre water park that will include such rides as the Giant Maelstrom and the Velkoma water bomber. Just north of the leisure attractions will be a mall similar in size to Mall of the Emirates, with 700 shops over three floors. Its 21,000 parking spaces will be ready in time for the race.

"It will be a more leisure place to live than other places in Abu Dhabi," said Andrew Covill, the head of sales at LLJ Property in Abu Dhabi. "People don't understand the scale of Yas Island. It is more than the golf courses and theme parks. It is an island lifestyle." Mr Covill said the island would appeal to buyers wanting to live in low-rise buildings and houses with views of the water, similar to the Al Raha Beach developments just across from Yas Island. Some of the Al Raha buildings are scheduled for handover to their owners in 2009, as the racetrack becomes operational.

Even when the structures are all built and the roads paved, the job will not be done. The entire island will undergo landscaping to transform the powdery sand into grass, with palm trees and pristine beaches. And a large marina will have to be filled with water. Aldar officials said it would be able to handle mega-yachts, whose owners could watch the Formula One race in the same way they do in Monte Carlo harbour. Workers have carved out a large semicircle from the shoreline opposite Yas Island to allow the yachts to turn around and have also dredged a channel deep enough to accommodate large yachts - in the process transforming what had been a peninsula into an island.

Having carved away Yas's former land link to the mainland, a key factor to the viability of the project is new road and bridge links. The Dh5.43 billion (US$1.47bn), 10-lane Shahama-Saadiyat Highway will connect Abu Dhabi airport and the E11 to the northeastern tip of Abu Dhabi island, arching from one island to another east of the city and culminating in a 1.5km bridge from Saadiyat to Mina Zayed, the site of the capital's main port. Aldar is building the portion running through its projects, while the rest is being handled by the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC). Yas Island itself will gain another bridge and an undersea tunnel - Abu Dhabi's first.

Mr Barrott said the key to meeting the deadline was logistics. On a recent late afternoon drive through the project, a bus stopped so about 30 workers getting out to pray. As the sun disappeared into the haze of dust rising off the island, construction vehicles and lorries full of cement crisscrossed roads on the horizon. It was the end of one shift and the start of the next. "We have to keep everything flowing," said Mr Barrott.