Colours in the desert

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One of the many urban legends surrounding Formula 1 is the alleged fact that Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi is one of the few man-made structures on earth that can be seen from space. It is after all the biggest-ever automotive theme park ever made. And it’s of vital importance to international business as well. This facility, which tells the story of Ferrari through a series of exhibitions and rides, has now become an international attraction that welcomes hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the world every year, providing a vital link between the Arab world, Ferrari and grand prix racing.  In the first decade of this century, Bahrain was the only host of a grand prix in the entire Arab world, having been on the calendar since 2004. Ferrari was very much at the forefront there too: the first race was won by Michael Schumacher, while in 2007 and 2008 it was the turn of his team mate Felipe Massa. And then came Abu Dhabi in a blaze of pomp and circumstance. The Ferrari World theme park, complete with the fastest rollercoaster in the world, was already well-known in Abu Dhabi. 

But at first, it looked like the F1 race was going elsewhere: namely, Dubai. A long-term deal was on the cards, thanks to a suitably mega investment. In the end, things didn’t quite go according to plan for reasons largely unknown. But the story goes that, just as Bernie Ecclestone was ready to sign a deal, the local sheikh was unable to make the appointment due to an injury sustained by one of his favourite race horses. Fact or fiction? It will never be proven. The fact remains that Dubai never got its F1 race and so the opportunity shifted to Abu Dhabi. Which fortuitously already had plans in place for a state-of-the-art circuit…  These days, Abu Dhabi has become a long-term fixture on the world championship. Even under the new management of Liberty Media, which is not overly fond of races held a long way from Europe or the United States – their key focus – the future of the Yas Marina circuit seems assured. And so, on the last Sunday of November, the venue will host a round of the F1 championship for the ninth consecutive year. 

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It’s a futuristic track of the sort never seen before: many different corners of differing radii, a couple of short yet high-speed straights, a section of circuit that runs underneath the beautiful concrete and glass structure of a six-star hotel, as well as a pit lane exit that comes out underneath the track itself via a tunnel. A lap formed in the shape of a pistol, aiming at the northeast to seemingly challenge the surrounding desert. That’s what Formula 1 in Abu Dhabi is all about.

Right up to the end of the last century, there was little to differentiate this place from an endless sea of sand. Then, the power of oil money fuelled the unstoppable economy of the Emirates and allowed the stunning Marina Bay circuit to be built as part of the growing passion for motorsport that the Middle East had only recently discovered. Formula 1 finally arrived there in 2009, and victory went to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. One year later Vettel and Red Bull triumphed again, following a nightmare for Ferrari. Had it not been for an error from the pit wall, Fernando Alonso probably wouldn’t have slipped down the order and that year’s world title could have been his – rather than the first of four championships that were destined for Vettel. The Abu Dhabi jinx still continues for Ferrari: Abu Dhabi is one of just four countries to have hosted a world championship grand prix that has never been won by Maranello (the other three are Morocco, India and Russia).

But there is more to the Abu Dhabi track than just its 21 corners and 5554 metres of track. Despite the ever-present heat, even at this time of year, there’s always a generous supply of water thanks to the desalination plant that uses seawater to create a veritable garden around the track. There’s also a high-tech lighting system ensuring that the track and pit lane maintains a consistent level of illumination even with the advancing evening. All this put together makes the Abu Dhabi track not just a perfect example of a hyper-modern facility but also a real megastar of the F1 calendar. It’s highly-advanced, but with maximum respect for the environment at the same time. And respect for the neighbouring desert as well, which is happy for the circuit to be there. Just as long as everything knows its place.

Now Abu Dhabi has special meaning for Pirelli too. One year ago, the 2017 range of tyres was first presented at the circuit: 25% wider than their predecessors and completely renewed in terms of construction. These led to unprecedented levels of performance, as the number of broken lap records this year can testify on the majority of the world’s circuits. This week there will be another presentation: on Thursday 23 November, Formula 1 will meet the new 2018 P Zero range – complete with two new colours that now expand the family from five to seven slick compounds.

Just as one championship concludes, another one opens up along with a fresh wave of innovations. From Tuesday to Wednesday (November 28–29), straight after the grand prix, the new Pirelli tyres will be on track at Abu Dhabi for two days of testing with all the teams.

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