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ABU DHABI Grand Prix

With a sparkling venue hosting the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November- F1 is sending out more signals today than ever before that it is an experience of utmost luxury for the wealthy and successful (those who typically further their success through use of private jets).

It may have been true in old- pre-sponsorship days of motor racing that if you want to make a small fortune- you need to start with a large one- but today it’s possible to make enormous sums out of the top echelon of motor sport in a remarkably short space of time - thanks to Bernie Ecclestone.

The man who started out as a south east London car dealer- is now one of the wealthiest men in the UK and he holds the entire world of F1 in his thrall. Although now in his early 80s- Bernie appears to be as energetic as ever- especially when his personal fiefdom of Formula One is challenged.

By the time you read this- the young German ‘weltmeister’ Sebastian Vettel had already done it again after a season driving his Red Bull RB7 grand prix car with consummate skill- demoralizing the opposition in a manner not unlike that practised in previous years by his compatriot Michael Schumacher. The 24-year-old anglophile became the first F1 driver to win back-to-back championships since Schumacher achieved the feat for Ferrari - and he also became the youngest.

But what of the spectators – the people who- along with the world’s TV companies pay a great deal of money to fund the vintage Champagne lifestyle enjoyed by the competing teams and their guests?

There can be few sports that operate with such a pronounced gulf between the spectators and those who inhabit the Paddock Club as it’s known. Unlike the favoured ones at Manchester United’s Old Trafford- nothing so mundane as a prawn sandwich passes the lips of those who eat in the palatial halls dedicated to Ecclestone. These fortunate few dine on the finest cuisine- drinking premier cru bubbly as they mix with the uniformed team personnel and even – occasionally – with the handful of drivers.

Forty or fifty years ago- spectators could buy a relatively inexpensive paddock ticket and wait – often on a cinder or mud-covered area behind the pits - watching the mechanics go about their oily tasks under hastilyerected gazebos alongside the trucks that ferried their precious cargos around the race circuits.

Usually a driver or three- dressed in pale blue or white overalls- sometimes with the household name of a tyre or fuel company embroidered discretely on the front- sauntered past- and occasionally a small boy would proffer a program and pencil to capture the carefully-signed autograph of their hero of the day.

From Nurburgring to Silverstone and from Monaco to Monza- the mechanics plied their trade. And for the casual observer- often the only way to tell which team they were working for was whether or not they were enjoying a lunchtime slug of red wine and eating spaghetti (likely employee Ferrari)- or whether a strong whiff of garlic and Gauloises pervaded the atmosphere - in which case- a French team was usually nearby.

Raising the Game
Today- circuits like the purposebuilt Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi have transformed the way in which the sport is organised- thanks to Ecclestone’s vision and drive. Once F1 races only appeared on national TV if that particular country’s Grand Prix was the featured race or- sadly- if a driver bearing a household name had been killed or maimed.

Now each race is broadcast to many millions worldwide and there’s also live coverage of practice sessions and Saturday’s qualifying sessions. The familiar paddock areas from the live TV feeds are organised- clean and pleasant areas to stroll around (no more cinders or mud here) while the huge pits themselves – where the highly-polished cars are kept in antiseptic luxury on freshly painted or tiled floors – are manned by mechanics carrying lap-tops and wearing bespoke- sponsored team wear.

The drivers are often found relaxing in air-conditioned comfort in the so-called ‘motor homes’- supping vitamin health drinks and eating whatever energy food their dietary gurus and fitness specialists have decreed for that day’s likely temperature and exertion levels. These team vehicles are often two or even three storeys high - and the width of two or three trailer-sized vehicles - and they feature extensive kitchens- rest areas- floored dining rooms- private bedrooms- massage suites and hospitality areas.

Luxury and Pampering
It is here that each team’s personal guests are wined and dined- and treated to a weekend of luxury and pampering that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

And should anyone get bored with hanging around ‘their’ team’s area of the paddock- there’s always the opportunity to savor the delights on offer in Bernie’s Paddock Club area itself- or maybe make a foray into a trackside grandstand (tickets provided- of course). There are usually ‘freebies’ on offer too – sponsor-bedecked umbrellas- luxury pens- the latest fashion sunglasses- luggage bags- team anoraks and brightly colored clothing (all branded of course).

Plenty of these guests prefer to watch events unfold – G&T in hand - on the giant flat-screen TVs that feature within each of the motor-homes.

The new breed of Grand Prix circuits are indeed far removed from the old tracks based on airfield perimeter roads or sometimes – like Monaco – on city streets. Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit boasts ‘the most modern full-service meetings- incentives- conferences and exhibitions venue in the Middle East’. From trackside team-building days to staging a conference or banquet in a memorable setting it provides an unrivalled backdrop for events of all sizes.

This year- the Grand Prix itself will be held on Sunday 13 November and unlike many of the world’s F1 circuits- there are no ‘general admission’ tickets enabling spectators to get in without paying vast amounts for grandstand seats. Although packages were available – including listening to the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Britney Spears (an unlikely duo if ever there was one) at the free postrace concert – you needed to have your bank manager ‘on side’ before contemplating booking - costs were upwards of £1-600 each- without flights- for a three or four-day package.

But then- as the specialist brochure says: “The £800-million Yas Marina Circuit has been designed to produce an unforgettable experience. Inspired by Arabian culture and values combined with cutting-edge innovation and luxury features- it is a truly staggering venue. Up to 50-000 spectators are treated like royalty throughout the weekend …No other circuit gets you so close up to the race action…!”


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