F1: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. All because of a horse..
The unfortunate thing about Abu Dhabi, as the final race of the Formula 1 season, is the fact that the title is nearly always done and dusted by the time the F1 circus gets there. Of the 10 races run in Abu Dhabi so far, only two stand out as championship deciders. But the fact that Abu Dhabi forms part of the calendar at all – rather than Dubai – is mostly down to luck anyway.
The 2010 race
Abu Dhabi made its Formula 1 debut in 2010, with the two Red Bull drivers and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso fighting it out for the title. Mark Webber, second in the championship, kicked the action off. Shortly after the start, the Australian was called hurriedly into the pits. Ferrari copied the Red Bull strategy, bringing Alonso into the pits early too. But that allowed Sebastian Vettel to take advantage of the early stop for his rivals, pulling out an advantage in the other Red Bull. His eventual margin proved untouchable, even up against a competitive Ferrari and hyper-motivated Alonso. The Spaniard ended up stuck behind Renault's Vitaly Petrov, with no way to get past on a track where it's tricky to overtake. And so Vettel began his spectacular run of four titles.
The second occasion was 2016. It was the third of seven consecutive years – including the current season – dominated by Mercedes. But between the team's two drivers there was open warfare. A couple of on-track errors from Lewis Hamilton – notably when the two cars came together in Spain on the opening lap – plus a technical failure for the Englishman in Malaysia, meant that Nico Rosberg arrived in Abu Dhabi as title favourite. Even if Hamilton won, second would be enough for Rosberg to take the title.
That's exactly how it panned out. Nico became the second world champion in the sport's history who was the son of a previous world champion, following in the footsteps of Damon Hill, who wrote his name in the history books around 30 years after his father Graham: F1 world champion in 1962 and 1968. It was such an upset (this was, after all, the only title that Hamilton has missed out on between 2014 and now) that Rosberg announced his immediate retirement shortly afterwards. There was too much emotion, too much constant hard work needed to bring the title home, in a year that was characterised by so much stress and fatigue for him. Enough was enough.
A done deal
This year, Mercedes claimed the manufacturers' title halfway through November in Imola, while Hamilton took the drivers title at the Turkish Grand Prix. In Abu Dhabi, he might be celebrating a different achievement: his return to racing if he recovers from the Covid-19 infection that afflicted him shortly after his 11th win of the season in Bahrain on November 29. As a result, Hamilton had to enter self-isolation and miss the Sakhir race at the same venue the following weekend.
So Yas Marina will be all about entertainment at one of the most spectacular races of the championship, on a circuit that is among the most picturesque of them all – and certainly the most modern. Throughout the Emirates, there's a massive passion for Formula 1. Visible from the stratosphere is the enormous red canopy of Ferrari World: the planet's biggest automotive theme park. This huge facility that pays homage to Ferrari tells the story and fascination of the marque to an international audience, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the planet. And it was the first concrete step with which the Emirates became closer to Ferrari, and the universe of grand prix racing.
Ferrari World – and the world's fastest rollercoaster – became a reality more than 10 years ago in Abu Dhabi. But for a while it looked like Formula 1's arrival in the region would take place somewhere else. Specifically, Dubai. In 2006 there was a long-term deal with a massive investment that was ready to be signed. Bernie Ecclestone – F1's former ringmaster – arrived to put pen to paper, but Dubai's ruling sheikh wasn't around to receive him.
And that wasn't down to any contractual or economic reasons. Instead, his favourite race horse had been injured, and this was an emergency that took precedence. In the end, Dubai never got the Formula 1 race that it had been so close to realising, while Abu Dhabi seized the opportunity instead. Which happened to have at its disposal an ambitious project for an innovative circuit built on an artificial island. Today it's a stunning oasis of greenery and technology, in stark contrast to the surrounding desert.