Yas Marina is the perfect temple of speed for the Middle East. Full of character, colour and personality, it combines modernity with flowing organic textures: the towering floodlights stand side by side with the desert palms, man-made branches laden with lights to counterpoint the gently swaying palm fronds. The grandstands that stretch out along the straights are topped with Arab-style tented peaks. The sleek European typefaces used around the track complement the flowing Arabic scripts: there's an effortless style with Arabic lettering that looks modern and yet timeless, like the place itself.
The sun doesn't always shine here – witness the minor sand storm on race day – but when it does it fries everything in site. Cars and drivers suffer under the intense heat, making this place a real challenge.
Of course, having a stunning hotel situated in the middle of the track and next to a marina doesn't hurt business: the only disappointment is the quantity of SUVs (Range Rovers and Cayennes to the fore, of course) compared to 'proper' cars. Luckily that seemed to change on race day.
It's about seven hours on the plane from London to Abu Dhabi, and I was lucky on the outward journey to get a flight that landed in the evening – this means flying in over the space-base illuminations of Abu Dhabi town. The time passed quickly, playing with the in-flight map and on-board cameras: both front facing and landscape pointing directly down from the plane! As usual, the route took us in through Turkey and over Iraq: cloud cover over the latter meant I missed the amazing landscapes I saw last year.
Hotel parking areas are always good places to spot cool cars. I think the kit of this R35 is a good example of how to make a good car look even better – I'm a big fan of this black nose and roof combined with the off-white body. Also, perhaps this was what inspired the Sumo Power team when they were forced to swap the nose on the #21 car, post battle-damage from the Qualifying Race!
Blacked-out AMGs are pretty de riguer on the local freeways, but I never get tired of seeing Corvettes. The only bad thing was seeing more C6s on the street than in the GT1 garages, where there should have been four but only two were to be found in time.
Yas Marina gets a bad rap for its lack of overtaking possibilities – certainly by the F1 boys. Then again, they can't overtake anywhere, even with KERS, DRS, and whatever other acronyms they deploy. The GTs didn't seem to have such a bad run of things, and certainly they look great around the shortened track layout they used.
This year I had a bit more of a look around the facilities in between races. Yes, that included the bars. But this was purely to check out the views. After all, I was working…
The disappointing reality was that despite the organisers putting in maximum effort the crowd turn-out was still well short of what was hoped for. The views were great, the temperature was perfect (despite a mini sandstorm!) and the champagne was chilling. If this was at a race-track in Europe, or just a bar in a main town, it would be absolutely rammed!
It is difficult: in all honesty any F1 or Nascar track looks empty when a 'regular' series turns up. After all, what would be considered a good sportscar crowd of, say, 20,000 wouldn't make a venue built for a 80,000 look busy.
On the main strip behind the grandstand was a whole parade of stalls and attractions, including a stand promoting the rides available at the track itself. If I could, I would live here.
Karting before breakfast. A spin in the Camaro and Aston before lunch. A couple of runs in the dragster in the afternoon, and then round the day off with a blast in one of the Radical sports racers. This is a racer's paradise. And the chances of being rained off? Nil, unless they turn the sprinklers on.
All the buildings around the track are impressive – somehow they've even managed to make the rows of grandstands not look too linear and ugly.
The designers have created a couple of natural spectating arenas with acres of great seating: along the start straight and then down at the bottom hairpin where the Drift series lays out its track. But it's the Yas Hotel behind the pit-lane that dominates the circuit.
It just looks amazing from every angle. The two 12-story towers are linked together by the space-bridge and draped over by the Grid Shell, the Tron-style framework of over 5,000 pivoting, diamond-shaped panels. Aerial shots look unbelievable (hence my disappointment about being on the wrong side of the plane this year) but it's not exactly shabby from ground level.
I remember making Lego buildings for Scalextric tracks to go under and through when I was young (and probably not so young as well… ahem) – the Yas Marina track is a great example of what can be achieved when you let your imagination go. It might not have the magical echoes of the past like tracks such as Spa, but it echoes… the future? Is that possible?!
Where else could you step out of your yacht and stroll into a luxurious hotel which straddles a Formula One track? And the hotel is surprisingly cheap – you can get a deluxe double room overlooking the marina here for less than a dive in central London, and I know where I'd rather be… This shot shows the inner marina, with the rows of team buildings behind the pit-lane on the left of shot; the hotel is on the right.
This pairing of Corvette C6 and Bentley Continental GT, both sporting some custom parts, stood as gate guards outside the hotel on race day. Despite the size of the Bentley I think the GT has a great, aggressive look to it.
The sailing club building in the marina continues the futuristic theme. I might be a sucker for old buildings, but you can't help but be impressed with this kind of modern architecture.
During the day the hotel looks great. At night it looks amazing.
The LED panels shimmer and shift, changing colour and bathing the marina in light. I remember flying in last year at night and seeing the track and hotel clearly illuminated from the air. It was an amazing sight.
The hotel complex is fully Battlestar, especially surrounded as it is by space-age super yachts.
Again, this is surely a starship docking station on one of the outer planets.
Night suits the GT1 cars. They're noisy and brutal enough during the day, but the dark allows you to see the pressures on the cars trying to tear the flimsy exteriors to shreds and the burning exhausts shooting out flames. The Lamborghinis do this as a matter of course, but all the GT1s flicker and flame in the dark.
I think you can judge a lot by the livery on a car: some just look faster by having good paint to match the lines. The new Belgian Racing Ford GT, being run as a satellite to the Marc VDS pair of Fords, stands out in its dayglo livery.
The Swiss SRT squad have swapped their Nissan GT-Rs for two Murcielagos: it'll be interesting to see if they can get on top of their new Italian steeds. I'd like to see them integrate the Blancpain logos into their scheme a bit better – they look a bit disjointed at the moment.
Both Aston teams from last year are back and have swapped their previous year's approach to liveries: Hexis now have two silver cars accented in red, as opposed to one with red and one with blue. Young Driver now have one white car with red stripes and the other with black. Now it's the Hexis cars which will be difficult to tell apart!
The red of the Exim Bank China Corvette at least brings a new scheme to the C6.R, unlike the sister DKR car which looks like a five-minute job with some tank tape… I'm glad to see the 'Vettes back for a last hurrah – it looked pretty unlikely until, well, about five days before the beginning of the championship. I think we'll be lucky to see more than one of the missing two cars at best, if at all unfortunately.
The track is incredibly well staffed, with a friendly mix of locals and European ex-pats. The cut-off version of the track in use for the GT1s meant you could edge along this barrier and hang off the edge, getting right up to the cars as they accelerated through the corner.
Nissan have again supplied the course and medical cars for the GT series: this is the hot-lap R35, which is used to give guests a blast round the track driven by one of the GT1 drivers.
The start straight feels quite constricted when you're down on the grid, hemmed in by grandstands and with the funnel effect down to the first corner.
It's a long pit-lane: there are 40 garages along its length (and then another 30 in the support race pit-lane at the other side of the circuit).
But it's the main pit-lane that has the other unique section: the underground pit-lane exit. The cars growl down the pit-lane on their limiters before cresting the ramp and dropping down into the tunnel.
They then scrabble round the tight left-hander (normally on new, cold tyres remember) to then get up to racing speed and rejoin the track at the outside of the exit of turn two. The good thing here is that you can get right down to the bottom of this section: with the tight confines of the tunnel it's a real rush! The Sun Tower looms over the exit, a solar-powered V-VIP viewing platform. That's the people even more important than the important ones.
The media room at Abu Dhabi is air-conditioned heaven, full of the nicest staff imaginable, TV screens aplenty and fridges full of chilled water.
However, we manage to make it look like a tip pretty quickly. Although the track is surrounded by fences, access is actually really good, and the circuit shuttles frequent. One lesson I did learn from last year was to keep up fluid intake: on the Friday I downed three litres of water, a litre of orange juice and a bag of fruit! One I didn't was to try and break in new boots at a race: result, blister central. Ouch.
I stumbled across the support race pits almost by mistake: the local Touring Car teams were set up in the support pit-lane located out past turn 10: they might have been isolated, but it meant no lack of space and no working out of tents in the heat. There's an eclectic mix of cars in the series, from this Integra through a clutch of BMW, SEATs, Clios…
…and Civics old and new. For each race the 19 cars would exit their own private pit-lane and drive round the last half of the track to make it to the grid.
Last year I bluffed my way into the building site that was Ferrari World. Now it's finished, open and full of cars and attractions typically this was as close as I got to it. There were some advantages to being stranded by the volcanic ash cloud last year.
Formula One had been here testing with Pirelli in the off-season, but the track was still green when the GT1s arrived. They did their best to leave their mark on the track.
Temples Of Speed here on Speedhunters are usually about legendary tracks that have staged classic races, such as Reims or Monza. Yas Marina might not be up there with them yet, but I think it's hard to argue against it being a Temple Of Speed. From The Future.