FIA GT1 World Championship, round one, Abu Dhabi. The Yas Marina track exists on an island dedicated to Formula 1 and motorsport. It's about as good as it gets for a petrolhead: an insanely luxurious but surprisingly affordable hotel in the middle of a state-of-the-art race track. As I flew in at night to land at the nearby Abu Dhabi terminal, the track was clearly visible off to the left, floodlights sparkling away and the pastel colours of the Yas Hotel shimmering and shifting.
The wave of heat and humidity hit me as soon as I walked out of the terminal building: a low of mid-20s even overnight meant there would be no respite over the weekend: during the day high 30s would be on the menu, to keep things constantly simmering. The Yas Hotel straddles the track: literally you can be supping a beer on the terrace and watching the racing go around and through the hotel itself.
Thank god for air conditioned pit garages; in fact, any kind of movement outside was a case a running from garage to garage to keep out of the heat.
Speaking of heat: there may be new GT1 rules, but the cars are thankfully still the same on the surface. Big body kits. Big wings. Big flames. Big and clever.
First order of the day was a photo call for the cars, with World GT1 boss Stephane Ratel taking centre stage to show off the new series' line-up of marques.
During the week there had been a final Balance Of Performance test: the Sumo Power cars ended up top of the pile. A very happy team soon turned to a rather annoyed team as both they and the sister SRT Nissan team were slapped with a 30kg weight penalty. The FIA have said that arbitrary weight penalties may be applied as the season goes on – even between sessions – which hasn't thrilled the teams. Let's hope we don't see the same level of changes as ruined the WTCC last season.
All the teams had already marked out their territory: some more than others. The slightly inappropriately-named Young Driver AMR squad even taped out the approach path for their pit box.
Prior to the first practice session, the calm of the garages quickly changed. Cars that had been standing in solitude, mostly up on jacks, became the centre of attention as the session became imminent.
Set-up changes and parts swapping continued…
…but the main focus was in practising pit stops. Every team knew they would be crucial in such a short race: just two mechanics are assigned to each car, with only one wheel gun.
That's four wheels to change whilst the driver swap is also on. It's a race within a race.
The All-Inkl Lamborghini Murcielagos were testing shift patterns: up on the jacks the wheels were free spinning as the team went up and down the box.
Meanwhile in the Maserati garage…Relative calm. You can see why they keep winning championships.
By the main entrance to the circuit was this Aston Martin DB5. When they said the Astons were being grandfathered into the series, I didn't think they meant this…
The pit-lane is full F1 spec: wide and long.
1pm. Green light and the 80 minute session started. First cars out were the two Marc VDS Racing Ford GTs.
The howling Hexis Aston DB9 soon followed, as most of the cars began to take exploratory runs at the track.
One of the most unusual features at Yas Marina is the pit-lane exit: it dips down as the track bears left, crosses underneath it via a tunnel and then emerges on the outside of turn two.
The pit-lane officially ends before the tunnel, so cars have to be on it through the narrow tunnel and ready to accelerate up the hill to join the track.
This means that cars coming out of the pits are up to racing speed, making life difficult for cars coming up the hill: they're making for the same bit of track to make the right-hand sweeper of turn three.
Yas Marina uses the same kind of high-grip run-off strips as at the Paul Ricard track, giving similarly recognisable stripes in images from the track.
The track drops from the right-hand crest of turn three and runs downhill to the quick left-right flick of turns five and six before a hairpin leading onto the long back straight.
Drivers can aim for the inside kerb on the entrance, but that makes the car pretty unstable into the following turn. First practice means the first proper chance to attack the track: finding the limit often has inevitable results.
Although, annoyingly, some of the slower parts of the track were off-limits for photographers, you could stand right by the track on the sweeper down to the turns 5/6/7 complex. This close you need ear-plugs… and a spring-loaded neck.
The Vitaphone Maserati MC12s don't look particularly balanced aesthetically with their mandated small-size rear wing, but they look mighty on the track. Long and low, they're glued to the tarmac.
Of course, the Corvette, Maserati and Aston Martin are the pre-2010 rules cars, 'grandfathered' into the series for this year. All three have won races before, and all three look more than capable of doing so again.
Having only seen the Mad Croc Chevy in pictures before, up close you can really see the crocodile texture that covers the car: it's strangely three dimensional and organic-looking…
The Murcielagos might look great, but unfortunately they were propping up the bottom end of the time-sheets come the end of the session.
As expected, the Maserati was near the top, with a 2:08.714s lap, but was beaten to the top spot – and by some margin.
Renault F1 refugee Romain Grosjean joined Thomas Mutsch in the Matech Ford GT, and they put in a 2:07.580s lap. The track has enormous grandstands with arcs of canvas coming off the backs, in the style of Bedouin tents, which again helps give the track character. Faceless F1 circuit this isn't.
The Yas Hotel is visible even from the far end of the track. Thankfully there was a shuttle service that drove around the perimeter road, so you could just jump in to hitch a ride to the furthest extremities of the track. MPVs cruised around with their doors open for easy access, so you could ride 'Nam chopper style with your feet hanging out….
Although the grandstands had been empty in the morning, the track was opened to the public for the afternoon and the pit-lane opened for an autograph session.
The drivers did a brisk trade in posters and signed flyers. The minute the session was over all the drivers dashed back to their respective garages, as they only had 15 minutes to prepare for the last two sessions of the day: pre-qualifying and qualifying. The sky was already darkening, though it turned out it wasn't for the reason we thought…