F1 Weekend in Abu Dhabi

Matt Hills on 11 January 2017
I’ve always kept an eye on Formula 1, without claiming to be a die-hard fan. A whole race? Maybe not. Highlights? Yes please. But I have a friend who lives in Abu Dhabi, home of the final F1 race of the season, which was developing into an epic battle between the Mercedes of Messrs Hamilton and Rosberg. So it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss – a bit of winter sun (the race is in November) and tick ‘Live F1 race’ off my bucket list.

First problem – flights! Apparently, everyone else thought of this before me, and direct flights to Abu Dhabi were exceedingly busy, and therefore exceedingly expensive. And there are only 4 a day, which doesn’t help. Nearby Dubai provided the solution – with up to 17 scheduled flights a day, there was still plenty of choices, and the transfer by taxi takes about 90 minutes and costs around £75. A no-brainer for a party of 3, especially as we saved about £200pp on the flights.

Weekends in Abu Dhabi start (on a Friday) in a very traditional way – brunch. This isn’t an English brunch of some weird hybrid combining breakfast and lunch. This is a chance for expats and visitors to let their hair down in some style. Hosted by the best hotels in town (we were at the St Regis), this is a full-on feast of exotic local and international cuisine, on an industrial scale. To put it into context, they don’t provide a cheese board – they have a cheese room. Everything is served buffet style, and unlimited, so help yourself to endless seafood, roast meats galore, a fine selection of pasta, sushi, and curries, a very well-stocked barbeque, more veggies than you can wave a stick at, and somewhere (I’m told) a salad bar to die for… Then there were the desserts, which looked like a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the afore-mentioned cheese room. And to wash it all down? Obviously, the booze is unlimited too – champagne, cocktails, fine wines from around the world – you name it they had it…

Now, on to the Grand Prix! Located on Yas Island (home to Ferrari World, Waterworld, a golf course, beautiful beaches, and live shows) the Yas Marina Circuit is impressive, huge grandstands, great facilities, and (of course) glorious sunshine. We were in the cheap seats – a large grassy area right in the centre of the circuit. Qualifying on the Saturday afternoon was a chance to get familiar with the cars, and the noise! Apparently, they’re quieter than they used to be, but when you get close to them it’s still very impressive. And the speed, which doesn’t really come across on TV, is amazing – they really do seem glued to the tarmac.

It wouldn’t be an F1 weekend without some live music thrown in. We were lucky (?) enough to get Lionel Richie on the Saturday night – not my scene, but an impressive live act all the same. Sunday night was Rhianna, but utterly shambolic crowd control meant the venue was completely inaccessible (a blessing in disguise?!)

The big day started with a fly-over by an Etihad A380 escorted by the UAE Airforce. The Grand Prix itself was brilliant – it’s timed to start at sunset, so it’s a pretty amazing spectacle. Hamilton did all he could to force a result, Rosberg did just enough to pip him to the title. Whatever your vantage point, make sure you can see a big screen – without it, due to the vagaries of staggered pit stops and different tyre strategies, it’s very easy to lose track of who’s actually winning!

Of course, Abu Dhabi is a year-round destination (ok, maybe avoid the height of summer, it really is unbearably hot), so there’s much more going on than just the Grand Prix. Other than Yas Island, there are desert safaris (with an optional overnight Bedouin desert camp experience), impressive mosques, world-class shopping, and (on the way home via Dubai) the small matter of the world’s tallest building, the 829.8m Burj Khalifa. Lots of golf if you fancy it, world-class hotels, fine cuisine and of course glorious weather, there’s something for everyone…