Day eight of our thee day trip to Yas Marina for the opening round of the World GT1 Championship. As all the FIA GT1 teams and associated personnel sat in the various hotels on Yas Island, stuck in Abu Dhabi because of the Icelandic volcano fall-out, there was time for reflection: at least until the beer ran out, as was rumoured to have happened in at least one hotel. GT1 presents a new global face of sportscar racing (or, 'sportswear', as my computer is desperate to auto-correct it). It's got the title. It's got the venues. it's got, it has to be said, the cars. Is it going to work?
Yes. Unapologetically, unbiased by my admittedly fanboy 'sportswear' attitude, yes it is. So the TV coverage might have been last minute. So the idea of a flyaway race as an opener is a fine line between genius and madness for the 12 teams, some of which haven't run at this level before. So the rumour before the season said that 24 cars would never make it to Abu Dhabi. But they did, and they put on a proper show. The racing was great: check out the GT1 World TV website to watch full coverage from the event.
There are lots of arguments flying round about GT racing at the moment, all of which have some validity. GT1 is dead? Yes, in America. GT2 is dead? Yes, in Europe. GT3 cars are as fast as GT2, so why not kill GT2? Yes, and they're cheaper as well. But there's some common sense to be brought in here, which perhaps suggests that certain classes work at certain levels – or in certain territories. The GT1 class for the recent Le Mans Series race at Paul Ricard attracted the grand total of one car. FIA GT2 allegedly had two confirmed full-season entrants – not because of a lack of teams that wanted to compete, but more because of uncertainty about the series. The ACO have put out the olive branch to GT2 and teams migrated across to the Le Mans Series. But GT1? Well, one car showing up shows that perhaps the SRO aren't doing such a bad job in getting 24 top-line cars to show up for their series – and for all the teams to put on a professional, exciting show.
One thing that will be key is that approach taken by the FIA. The worry across the teams is that we'll have a situation as with the WTCC last year: constantly changing rules, sand-bagging teams, confusion for the fans. The combination of cars to effectively different rules doesn't help, but then the two teams that suffered this weekend, Aston Martin and Nissan, were from both camps: 'grandfathered' cars and pure, 2010 cars respectively. SRT and Sumo Power are still smarting from the penalties handed out after the Balance Of Performance testing during the week – I doubt we've heard the last of that yet.
Aston are obviously disappointed after a pointless weekend despite a good showing in the qualifying race with the #8 Young Driver car, though their problems were mostly mechanical – and the #10 Hexis car breezed past the entire quartet of hamstrung Nissans in the qualifying race. Three of the four Astons are rebuilds on existing shells: you can see this one's providence from the three LMS/ALMS position lights on the side in front of the fuel inlet.
Previously it could be said that GT racing was elitist, certainly in the last five years or so, as professional teams and manufacturers escalated the category to a level that simply wasn't matched by the wider exposure that the series actually generated. Where was the coverage outside the specialist press? More to the point, where were the crowds at the races? Strangely, no one seemed bothered. Organisers made money; teams had benefactors to pay for cars. All very insular. You could argue the same for Formula 1 in its new tiger economy venues: huge, state-or-the-art venues. Vast, empty grandstands.
Yes, Abu Dhabi has huge grandstands. The venue was built for the express purpose of attracting Bernie's Circus – and succeeded, unlike its neighbours in Dubai. But for GT1 there was a crowd. A proper crowd! The start-line grandstand was more packed here than at the last FIA GT race I saw at Silverstone, the Home Of Motorsport in the UK. It's always difficult with a venue like this though: you pitch high, for F1 numbers of fans, which means the crowd for any other series will naturally be dwarfed by the facilities. Compared to the Dubai 24, where I doubled the number of people in the main grandstand (an event run at a completely different level, admittedly), GT1 at Abu Dhabi was well attended. Healthy. Glowing even. And not just with the stranded tourists and ex-pats you might expect.
The popular autograph sessions and open pit-lane walks were exactly what are needed for this global series. The venue is also not faceless. Seriously! It does has character and a unique look – it is Racing In Space, if you like, particularly during the night races. It has gradient. It has completely different sections over its 5.5kms, from the opening fast sweeps to the long back straight and then the stunning backdrop of the Yas Hotel complex.
It has the novelty of the underground crossover pit-lane exit, the under-the-grandstands run-off of turn 8 (now obviously proved to not be enough, post Natacha Gachnang's accident) and the aforementioned Yas Hotel. But more importantly, it's a good place to watch racing. I've got the sun-burn to prove it.
But maybe I just had too much time to think. It was over 72 hours since my plane should have whisked me back to the UK, but the fact the track was visible from my hotel room and the entire place was crammed with team personnel meant that the excitement of the race weekend hadn't faded. Along with the positive news about Natacha Gachnang's injury, cameraman Rob Hurdman (third from left) was on good form back at the hotel, ably supported by his colleagues from the Greenlight team.
Back at the track on Sunday night, once the racing was over at around 9pm there were still hours of work ahead for the teams.
Cars crossed the finish line and were parked up in Parc Fermé and celebration champagne flowed, but there were still 12 garages to dismantle and 24 cars to sort out before anyone could even think of going back to their beds.
Initially the cars were stuck in scrutineering, so the teams got on with breaking down the garages. The pit-wall awnings and computers were dismantled and packed, and then the packing crates brought out and the garages dismantled.
Behind the temporary walls carrying all the team branding (known as 'bullshit boards in the paddock!) is stored all the kit the teams needed for the weekend: all the spares and equipment to run two cars. Gradually it was broken down and bagged or crated for the journey home: each team has tens of thousands of kilos of kit at each race.
Spare bodywork previously tucked behind desks and walls suddenly became visible as the order and neatness of the race-day garages was dismantled.
Once the cars were wheeled back from scrutineering the teams could start work on them.
There were two main tasks: checking out and repairing damage and wear from the race, and then the preparation of the cars for being air-freighted out.
The Hexis Aston Martin boys were still trying to source the origin of their oil leak and fix the wheel problem on #9, and also had suspension damage to fix on the #10 car.
Both cars retired in the feature race despite starting in good positions, so they'll be looking to get things back on track at Silverstone. I'm sure they want to spend as little time under the car as possible in future…
The four Maseratis had a predictably strong race: I still think the reduced size rear wing means the MC12 isn't quite as pretty as it could be – but if it had the full size wing it would likely win everything!
Old tyres are put on for the journey home. The winning Matech Ford team had an interesting bar system that they threaded their wheels onto for transportation.
Inside their garage were the spoils of the weekend: some trophies for the Matech factory.
It's amazing how much time teams spend on cleaning wheels: before races, during and after. Not the most glamorous job, but absolutely necessary. Rims that have suffered punctured tyres are fully checked out and cleaned to make sure there's no additional damage to the wheel itself.
Finally, there's not much left. In the Reiter garage, just their rather nice sofas and a few crates remained, with the cars about to be rolled away to the transport collection point.
With the cars prepped, they were loaded up onto transporters to be taken to the airport: there was actually more chance of getting the cars out on freight flights into Europe than the teams on passenger planes, but even all the kit would be sitting at the airport for days waiting for a flight.
Finally, around 4am the last team personnel began to leave the circuit. Suitcases packed, it was time to head back for a well-deserved beer. Or four.
With Sunday a day of recovery, teams gathered around in hotel foyers and meeting rooms to discuss just how they were going to get people back to their homes. Teams often staff up for race weekends, adding to their permanent personnel, and there was a lot of concern around for people who needed to get back to their weekday jobs and family. Along with the bars, restaurants and pools. the hotel laundries were also kept busy!
So, in an effort to maintain the Mad Dogs And Englishmen tradition, I chose midday to wander out to the circuit again. At the far end of the track is the site of what will be Ferrari World. After a very hot half hour walk in the sun, I arrived at the site.
It's totally insane. It's eye-wateringly big. Look closely and to the right of the arm and you can just see a line of builders walking back to work after their lunch break. The building is like an enormous red space-ship that's landed in the desert. Six functionally pointless but architecturally impressive arms reach out from the central circular structure, which will contain the World's Biggest (Insert Anything You Fancy Here), as well as a fully-equipped Ferrari dealership. From the size of it, Ferrari World will likely be able to declare itself a separate state of the UAE when it opens.
It will also have two roller-coasters. Yes, of course it will be the fastest in the world. Every roller-coaster car will be modelled on an F430 Spider… Ferrari World is a long way from completion, but it will definitely be an amazing place to visit. Another thing you notice are the literally thousands of kilometers of irrigiation piping: there are flowerbeds everywhere on Yas Island, all kept healthy by a complex watering system.
I went back into the circuit to take a final look around: Jaguar were holding a customer driving day, the kind of thing that happens a lot at the track. Talking to the circuit management, the track is actually in pretty much constant use through track days and manufacturer events.
From up on top of the tower that housed the track offices were great views across the track, from right down to the north hairpin and Ferrari World and up to the Yas Hotel complex, and then across to the water on either side of Yas Island.
Down in the foyer was a scale model of the track!
But, nothing can beat Yas Marina in real life. What a stunning place! Now I just need a yacht to be able sail there…
Planes are now beginning to fly back to Europe, but as with the F1 paddock making its way back from China it looks like a chartered plane might be the best way to get the teams back home and prepping for the next race. So, from Abu Dhabi to where? To Silverstone. Round two of the World GT1 Championship. Time for Nissan to strike back? I'll have one final story from Abu Dhabi, on Sumo Power's experience at the track and challenge of getting back to the UK!