From October 30-November 1, the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place for the first time at the newly built Yas Marina Circuit. Maybe a chance to visit the UAE capital?
Time Out Bahrain staff
Less than 50 years ago, the entire emirate of Abu Dhabi was a near-empty desert populated by Bedouin tribes and small villages – hardly the place you would one day expect to host a major sporting event like the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. In the city’s seven-star Emirates Palace, the unveiling of the model of Yas Marina Circuit to the gathered press back in late 2008 felt like something special. Like a calling card for the city, the glistening US$40 billion, 50,000-seater stadium is one of the first things that visitors see as they land at Abu Dhabi airport (if you sit on the left side of the plane).
If Silverstone was judged unworthy to have a regular place on the F1 calendar because of its antiquated facilities, Yas Island shows why. Should you need a berth for your 100m-long super-yacht, the marina has you covered; a 60m-high VIP suite known as Sun Tower ensures an unobstructed view for the ‘very important people’, and the Yas Marina Hotel has the privilege of being the only hotel in the world with a Formula 1 track running through it.
But there is also life beyond the race itself – you’ve only to look at the music and racing events surrounding the Grand Prix to get an inkling of the attention this event will get. F1 is a sport that thrives on glamour and excess; by bringing it to places like Abu Dhabi, it will find not just a no-expense-spared facility, but the enthusiasm that comes with something new. ‘People who never bothered to watch Formula 1 will be involved now,’ Bernie Ecclestone said recently. In turn, Abu Dhabi gains not just the prestige and publicity of a genuine world sport, but a facility that will continue to bring in tourists and visitors year-round. This is surely a winning formula for everyone, making now the ideal opportunity for a visit.
The race is an important one for the F1 season, as it will determine once and for all the winners of both the driver’s and the manufacturer’s championships. It’s been an interesting season – Jenson Button seemed to lead the way early on, winning event after event, while 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton struggled with his form, mainly due to technical difficulties. Tickets to get into the track are expensive, but even if you make it to Abu Dhabi and don’t actually have a ticket, there are still many places to watch and soak up the atmosphere, plus a wealth of off-track entertainment to enjoy.
But what of the rest of the city? To realise just how far it has come in such a short space of time, get a glimpse of the Heritage Village, a faithful representation of a small nomadic camp. Follow this with a visit to Emirates Palace which, like Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, is often referred to as a seven-star hotel, as it offers a lot more than your average five-star. As well as being a popular music venue for the likes of Coldplay, George Michael and Andrea Bocelli, Emirates Palace has become a worthy host for temporary art exhibitions. Last year’s Picasso exhibition drew 50,000 visitors to the hotel, while elsewhere in the city a number of independent galleries such as the Ghaf Gallery, Salwa Zeidan Gallery and the Al Qibab Gallery have transformed Abu Dhabi’s art scene.
Arabia is famous worldwide for its racing thoroughbreds, its ancient bloodlines and the passion with which the Emirati people hold the equestrian arts. It may be racing of a different kind that leads Abu Dhabi to capture the world’s attention, but the breeding of winning horses is a serious business, and the Golf & Equestrian Club (02 445 5500) holds races every Sunday from November to April. In a surprisingly efficient use of space, there is a par-72 golf course located within the racetrack, which closes two hours before the racing begins. Non-member green fees for 18 holes are Dhs230 (Saturday to Wednesday) or Dhs240 (Thursday and Friday).
More fun, but less prestigious, is a round at Al Ghazal Golf Club (+971 2 575 8040), an 18-hole sand course chiselled into land alongside the airport. The city’s golfing pedigree was of course raised by the presence of The National Course at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which has played host to the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship since it began, and it will be raised further still when Gary Player’s signature ocean course opens on Saadiyat Island soon.
The city also boasts a pleasant network of parks. In the centre of the city is Capital Gardens, an assortment of manicured lawns gathered around a central pond – known to erupt into aquatic action whenever the mood takes it. Refreshments come courtesy of vending machines and a small cafeteria. The many parks which skirt the Corniche can be found on the east side of the island. Picnic tables are popular on warm winter evenings, and it’s always well lit and clean. Khalidiya Garden is noisy but great for children and full of colourful inflatables, although for a quiet stretch, the Old Airport Garden, next to the ice-skating rink, has swings for the kids, is beautifully ornamental and manages to remain tranquil.
Trainspotter types might even fancy a gander at one of the largest flagpoles in the world, which resides at the end of Abu Dhabi’s breakwater. For those looking to part with their cash, you can try your luck at the Abu Dhabi Mall or Marina Mall, or maybe even at the newly opened Souq Al Qaryat Al Beri, a short drive out of the main city towards the Shanrgi-La hotel in an area known as ‘between the bridges’. Here you’ll find the sprawling complex, built in the style of an old souq and complete with waterways and gondolas, featuring a number of shops and eateries, many of which offer fantastic views across the water to the stunning Grand Mosque.
No doubt the F1 will raise Abu Dhabi up a notch in terms of its standing on the world stage, and with future developments such as the Guggenheim and Louvre galleries there will only be more people interested in stopping by to visit. In short, go there now, beat the crowds, and grab a slide of the F1 action while you’re at it.
The inside track
How To Get There The circuit is about 25 minutes’ drive from the main city, with most roads well signposted. There’s limited parking and it’s about Dhs50 from downtown by taxi. Buses will also be organised to transport visitors to and from the circuit. Look out for times and details posted at www.yasmarinacircuit.ae closer to the time.
Support Races The big F1 race is on Sunday, but there are still plenty of support races to watch. There’s the GP2 Asia Series, regional action with the Chevrolet Supercars ME Championship and the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup.
Entertainment F1 is the perfect excuse to make a big song and dance, and the organisers clearly agree. As well as the circuit itself hosting international acts like Beyonce and Aerosmith, the Corniche will be playing host to an array of talent from across the world, from Timbaland and former Bob Marley cohorts The Wailers to Arabic stars like UAE singer Hussein Al Jarmi and Lebanese starlet Fares Karam.
After Parties Around the city the clubs and hotels organise their own celebrations. Check www.timeoutabudhabi.com for info.
For The Kids F1 is certainly not adult-only. The F1 Zone on the city’s Corniche will be showing family movies throughout the Grand Prix, while the area screening the live races will have plenty of fun and games for kids.
TV Schedule Not got a ticket? Watch the main event on Bahrain TV, or stake yourself out a spot on the Corniche where both the Brazil and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be screened live.
Tickets Tickets for the main event are available at the official website, www.yasmarinacircuit.ae, or by contacting +971 2 446 0384. Also visit the Etihad Holidays offices at Abu Dhabi, Khalidaya and Marina Malls on arrival.
Ticket prices start from Dhs1,500 for a three-day ticket, for which a complimentary car parking permit is also supplied. Handy if you decide to rent a car during your visit.
Need to know
Get there Many airlines fly from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi. Check current offers with Etihad Airways and Gulf Air.
Where to stay
Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi Hamdan Street (Fifth Street) (+971 2 621 0000/www.crowneplaza.com). Rates Dhs650-1,150 double (excl 16 per cent tax).
Le Meridien Abu Dhabi Tourist Club area, Sheikh Zayed Second Street (+971 2 644 6666/www.lemeridien.com). Rates Dhs1,200-2,800 double (excl 16 per cent tax).
Where to eat & drink
Bord Eau Excellent French fare. Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri (+971 2 509 8888). Open daily 7pm-midnight daily. Main courses Dhs100-150.
Mezzaluna If you want to eat at Emirates Palace, this is your best bet. Emirates Palace, Corniche Road (+971 2 690 8888). Open 12.30pm-3.30pm, 6.30pm-11.30pm. Main courses Dhs150-200.
Sardinia Voted best restaurant in the most recent Time Out Abu Dhabi Restaurant Awards. Abu Dhabi Health & Fitness Club (+971 2 446 5455). Open daily noon-3pm, 7pm-11pm. Main courses Dhs150-200.
Indoor skydiving SkyVenture, Abu Dhabi Health & Fitness Club, Al Saada St (+971 2 443 6333). A four-minute session in the wind tunnel costs Dhs290.
Abu Dhabi Mall North end of Ninth Street (+971 2 645 4858). Open Sat-Wed 10am-10pm; Thu 10am-11pm; Fri 3.30pm-11pm.
Marina Mall The Breakwater (+971 2 681 2310). Open Sat-Wed 10am-10pm; Thu, Fri 10am-11pm.
Where to watch (if you haven’t got a ticket)
F1 Fan Zone, Corniche Beach If you can’t get a ticket for the main event, then perhaps the next best place to watch the Grand Prix is the F1 Fan Zone on the Corniche. Huge screens will be set up in order to watch live screenings of both the Brazilian and Abu Dhabi races, including practice races and qualifying. You can even try your hand at the F1 simulator, although we suggest bagging yourself a comfy sofa for the duration.
Harvesters Certainly one of the more salubrious establishments in the capital, this smoky, old-fashioned British boozer has plenty of local colour. Cheap drinks and a giant plasma TV are its saving grace, but you wouldn’t want to take your mother there. Al Diar Sands Hotel, Electra Street (+971 2 615 6666).
Heroes A popular expat haunt, this basement bar is usually the site of football-loving geezers wielding scarves in victory, but for the past year it has been showing every GP race in the F1 season. A lively atmosphere and plenty of TV screens make it a good choice. Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi (+971 2 621 0000).
Hemingways A likeable bar with sports nights and plenty of TVs to catch up on the latest F1 action. Hemingways also does a mean burger if you’re hungry. They will be showing all of the Grand Prix racing, so you won’t miss a bit of the action. Hilton Abu Dhabi Hotel, Corniche Road (+971 2 681 1900).
NRG Passing the huge F1 car to your left as you enter Le Meridien’s ‘Village’, it’s not long before you’ll stumble across NRG, about as perky a sports bar as you’re likely to find. Its four big screen TVs (where to look?) ensure there’s plenty of viewing room, but it’s usually pretty packed, so get there early to stake yourself a spot. Le Méridien, Tourist Club Area (+971 2 644 6666).