It seemed somehow appropriate that 22 year-old Sebastian Vettel scored victory in the final round of the 2009 season against the sci-fi backdrop of the Yas Marina circuit. In many ways as if the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marked a new beginning for the Formula One spectacle.
Or is the spectacular new track merely the ultimate extension of the state-sponsored ‘vanity’ facilities which began in Sepang a little over a decade ago and extended to tracks in Bahrain, Shanghai, Istanbul and to a lesser extent, Singapore?
Each of these tracks has in its turn redefined the way that Formula One has projected itself to the public. Sepang was the first Grand Prix in the Far East and the first all-new track in a generation.
Over the past decade Sepang has matured gracefully, thanks mainly to its being a great driver’s circuit. The future might be less promising for Bahrain, Shanghai and Istanbul.
In Bahrain’s case, it has clearly been upstaged by its Arabian neighbour. In response the track’s management have astutely reached a deal with Bernie Ecclestone to host the opening round of the 2010 season, which will they hope will maintain its profile.
Sadly in the case of Shanghai and Istanbul, great facilities though they are, they are simply too remote and their ticket prices too expensive for locals, for them to fill their huge grandstands.
Both have more to do with making political statements than attracting a paying audience. One wonders how long that will last.
Singapore is something else. Although Abu Dhabi might have snatched the ‘wow’ factor this year, the fact is that Singapore offers the unique experience of Formula One cars racing through the heart of a vibrant city. More than that, it s a race with a soul, a character, thanks mainly to the number of Singaporeans who are genuinely excited and involved in the event.
Abu Dhabi though, blew the mind with the scale, quality and spectacle of the facilities. It was also a good race track too, with overtaking opportunities, challenging corners and of course, the longest and fastest straight in F1.
If that wasn’t enough, then you had the amazing 5000 LED ‘grid shell’ on the Yas Hotel which straddled the track. It illuminated in a continuously changing light show to the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ of those in the neighbouring grandstands.
As might be expected, Bernie Ecclestone summed it up perfectly as he stood in the Paddock. “Just like Silverstone” he quipped, drawing a direct comparison with the spartan British circuit’s bid to regain the 2010 British Grand Prix.
Bernie knows that the British track, without any government resources, simply can never spend on the scale of Abu Dhabi.
The recent British Grand Prix experience is a sad but cautionary tale.
Last year it was announced that the 2009 race would be the last at Silverstone.
A consortium of investors had leased the Donington Park track in the English Midlands and won the bid to host the British GP for the next fifteen years.
However the financial recession meant that the deal turned sour. Bankers pulled out their support. The construction work was abandoned. Last week it was revealed that the Donington bid for the British GP was over.
It is therefore all the sadder to note that as the cars raced in Abu Dhabi, Tom Wheatcroft, original owner of the Donington Park track passed away at the age of 87.
Tom was a five-star enthusiast who built up the biggest privately-owned collection of Formula One cars in the world.
In 1993, determined to hold a Grand Prix at Donington, he spent his own money to upgrade the track and personally paid Bernie Ecclestone the rights fee to host the European Grand Prix. It was of course, the legendary race when Ayrton Senna dominated to score one of his most emphatic victories.
The race made a massive financial loss. Tom, when asked how much it had cost him, allegedly said “Oh, millions,
but its only money.”
When one looks at the Abu Dhabi facility, spectacular though it is, one wonders whether the same passion is behind it, as Tom Wheatcroft gave on a rainy afternoon in Leicestershire sixteen years ago.
Steve Slater is a race commentator on STAR Sports coverage of the Formula One