Bernard Ndong: My Abu Dhabi Grand Prix experience
Earplugs are one of the items you cannot afford to miss in your checklist if you have the rare opportunity to watch a Formula One race live in person.
I was privileged to experience the 2016 Formula One Season finale- the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates as I accompanied four compatriots who had been rewarded by Vivo Energy Kenya, a Shell Licensee to witness the world’s most expensive sport.
I could see a section of the Yas Marina track from my hotel room on the second floor of the nearby Yas Marina Viceroy Hotel, which conveniently has vantage points that allow patrons to catch a glimpse of the cars whizz past at breakneck speeds at over 300km per hour.
My window was closed but it did little to muffle the famous whoosh sound that is synonymous with F1 cars. The noise levels are cherished by the sport’s purists since the sound is a manifestation of the power of displaced by supercharged engines.
The Formula One car is poetry in motion for motor sport enthusiasts. It is fast, artistic and the pinnacle of motor engineering that has quite a following across the globe but costs an arm and a leg to take part.
An F1 car cost at least Ksh200m and the engine siphons most of the mind-boggling budget.
The Yas Marina circuit has hosted the Abu Dhabi race since 2009 and the 2016 finale was a befitting climax to a season that had witnessed the two main protagonists and Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton who were battling for the Driver’s Championship.
Ahead of the final showdown 12 points separated Rosberg from Hamilton with the permutations favouring the German who needed a podium finish to wrap his maiden title ahead of his teammate and three-time British world champion in the sweltering Abu Dhabi conditions.
It was the perfect plot to whet the appetite of the passionate fans as the saga between the two came to its final act in the Middle East, the ‘Duel in the Desert’ as sections of the British media termed it.
Outside the Viceroy hotel, which straddles part of the 5.55Km circuit, I had a guessing game identifying the sleek high-end cars that dropped off F1 enthusiasts ranging from the top dollar Rolls Royce Phantom Coupé, Lamborghini and Porsche.
-Creme de la creme-
It felt like they were lining up for a high-end car magazine photo shoot. It was evident society’s crème de la crème could not miss arguably the biggest social event of the year.
The VIP guest list was long with numerous Presidents, former world leaders, music celebrities, actors and a plethora of the who is who soaking the atmosphere.
It was rumored that an East African President was also one of the VIP guests following proceedings on the race track.
The unwritten rule for the fans attire and a prevalent feature among 95 percent of thousands that gathered was to look classy. The rationale was simple, if you were planning to watch the high profile motor sport event; you had to look the part.
Tickets at the Abu Dhabi are one of the most expensive in the entire F1 season with a regular ticket in the stands covering the three days encompassing free practice, qualifying and the main race costing a minimum of Ksh80,000.
Prices for the VIP Main Grand Stand cost at least double or even triple the amount.
The 11 teams with two drivers each in their stable offer exclusive tours to their pits in the build-up to the final race allowing fans to witness the dozens of pit crew- almost 30 in number-work in unison to ensure their vehicles are performing at optimum.
I had the opportunity to watch Sebastian Vettel’s and Kimi Räikkönen pit crew preparing for the final race day.
The Ferrari drivers’ garages had a mesh of equipment with each crew-member bespoke in their Ferrari overalls.
“They practice together as a unit at least 30 times before a race just to ensure the coordination is seamless,” an official informed me.
The role of the pit crew is crucial during race day.
The “lollipop” man holding aloft a “stop/first gear “ sign guides the car into the pit and it stops at a precise position.
Three mechanics are involved in changing the wheel; one removes and refits the nuts with a high-speed gun while another removes the actual wheel while the other replaces it, a task completed in seconds.
Other crew-members address the car’s other needs at the same time. The entire process is well choreographed and achieved in a matter of seconds.
When cars access the pit lane, they are required to maintain a speed limit of 80kmph due to safety concerns.
During race weekend, Abu Dhabi witnesses a flurry of social activities revolving around the grand prix.
Parties are held around town and social meeting points experience booming business. International music stars such as Rihanna, Drake and Lionel Richie had concerts in Abu Dhabi with thousands of fans mostly from Europe, Asia and North America braving the chilly evening weather to enjoy the music.
What struck me about the grand prix was how Abu Dhabi has been able to capitalize on a single sporting event to attract thousands of fans and enhance the entire experience.
Public transport is well structured and a free shuttle service is provided for those opting to use public means around the Marina circuit area.
The trickle down effect is massive with hotels at almost full capacity. Billions of dollars are pumped into hosting the glitziest motor sport showdown in the world.
The Formula One season traverses all continents except Africa but it has a commendable following in the continent.
The race was previously held in South Africa in the early 60s and again in 1992 and 1993. There were rumours that the circuit’s return to Africa was in the offing but it is highly unlikely that it could materialise anytime soon.
If I had the opportunity to attend another race, I would not hesitate. It’s something I would now tick twice on my bucket list.