2013 F1 Grand Prix Abu Dhabi: How a world-class sporting event became the jewel in Abu Dhabi’s crown

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By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas

It’s time to get out those ear plugs again.

Marking its fifth anniversary as one of Abu Dhabi’s biggest annual sporting events, the 2013 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has attracted more than 55,000 fans, VIPs and celebrities from more than 80 countries this year for a weekend that has evolved into more than just a motorsport event.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which made its debut on November 1, 2009, features a unique 55 lap race and is F1’s only day to night race. The scenic race track allows fans to marvel as the cars pass the Marina, drive by the famous Ferrari World theme park and pass under Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi hotel toward the start/finish line.

The global attention, pride and benefits that come with hosting a world-class event such as the Grand Prix, however, is the inspirational result of a country who simply isn’t content with just enjoying one of the world’s richest oil reserves. The UAE capital has invested heavily in its tourism industry and mass development in recent years to boost Abu Dhabi’s profile and branding on a global scale – a move that essentially put it on the map as world-class city and global destination.

A massive investment pays off

The cost of organizing and running an F1 event on an annual basis regionally was a massive financial undertaking for the Abu Dhabi government that included set up costs such as circuit construction and a massive eight-year Formula One Management (FOM) license fee to host the race. The FOM license fee for Singapore’s Grand Prix, an event similar in grandeur to Abu Dhabi’s cost a staggering $121 million (Dh 449.8 million) to host. Footing the bill for the event, however, now seems almost minor in light of its broad economic benefits and the Abu Dhabi government’s ambitions to put its capital as a leader in global destinations.


“F1 is such big business and one of the most widely watched sports globally, therefore, the investment may not seem commercially viable for mere mortals like you and I,” said Steve Haysom, the chief executive of Omnia, a branding agency based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “However, as part of Abu Dhabi’s 2030 vision, the F1 and other sporting events like the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, Volvo Ocean Race and Mubadala Tennis championship are part and parcel of a cohesive sports-based strategy to raise the profile of the emirate on a global basis.”

Yas Marina, the venue for the event, holds just over 41,000 spectators, the majority of whom pay more than $500 per ticket. With 14,700 rooms in Abu Dhabi, the capital’s hotel industry is expected to earn more than $20.4 million over three nights, before anyone spends in restaurants, bars and malls. Etihad Airways, the official sponsor for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, agreed to extend its sponsorship for four more years until 2015 last year.

“It’s a significant return by any standards, by any way sponsorship is assessed,” said Peter Baumgartner, chief commercial officer at Etihad. “When you do investment like this as a destination, you want to leverage the opportunity of that platform and present Abu Dhabi to the world. [Stakeholders] in Abu Dhabi had to come together in a very organized, structured, close cooperating way.”

Star-studded entertainment draws huge numbers

Abu Dhabi organizers have also ensured that the race weekend has a distinctly local feel to make it a unique experience for its international and domestic visitors. Showcasing traditional Emirati culture and arts, a Heritage and Culture Village in the North Oasis will include regional performances, falconry displays, live cooking demonstrations, local handicrafts, henna and art. The GP weekend’s our nights of evening concerts and celebrity-studded after parties, however, have had just as big a draw, if not more, than the actual race. In addition to the qualifying and race day experience, spectators will also be treated to evening concerts during the extended race weekend at Yas Marina circuit from October 31 to November 3. Kicking off the event, Egyptian star Amr Diab, UAE’s Hussain Al Jassmi and Lebanon’s Elissa will take to the stage on Oct. 31, followed by American rap superstar Jay Z on Nov. 1, rockers Muse on Nov. 2 and British legends Depeche Mode closing the weekend on Nov. 3.


The announcement of Jay Z’s first performance in the Middle East came as an exciting surprise for many fans. “Jay-Z is the biggest rap mogul and music icon on this planet,” said Mike Fairburn, vice president of Flash Entertainment. “He was an obvious choice. Booking artists of high calibre is important since Abu Dhabi is one of the top circuits in the world.” Jay Z’s debut in the region will also allow fans to finally hear live songs from the rapper’s latest and highly personal album Magna Carta Holy Grail, where he raps about playing father to his daughter Blue Ivy Carter, fame and Michael Jackson. There is also speculation whether his wife, pop superstar Beyonce Knowles will make a surprise appearance as well.

Famous for attracting some of the biggest names in the music business, this year’s entertainment selection came as no surprise for international and local fans. Abu Dhabi’s Formula One concerts have included rapper Eminem, pop superstar Kylie Minogue and Canadian rock band Nickelback in 2012, pop star Britney Spears, US rockers Incubus, British rockers The Cult and former Beatle Paul McCartney in 2011, rapper Kanye West, rockers Linkin Park and pop legend Prince headlined in 2010, as well as Beyonce, Kings of Leon, Aerosmith and Jamiroquai in 2009.

Transforming Abu Dhabi into a regional cultural hub

Abu Dhabi’s transformation into one of the region’s leading cultural hubs is also the result of efforts by John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment, the concerts’ organizers, was charged in 2007 to “put Abu Dhabi on the map.” According to Lickrish, multiple big name artists have approached the management company to perform in the emirate since then and are drawn by the “appeal of playing in such unchartered territory to a new audience.”

“It goes with the whole idea of the development of the tourism industry and to make people realize that Abu Dhabi is accessible to all different people from all over the world,” said Lickrish. “Bringing these acts here makes the world think about Abu Dhabi. It helps to open it up. It makes people think about what’s really going on here. People have a very narrow view of the Middle East.”

Home to the Yas Marina Circuit and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Island officials have been planning for months to make sure the UAE’s prime entertainment and leisure spots was ready for the GP race weekend and caters to the wide variety of fans coming in.

“Whether you are a family, a motorsport enthusiast, an executive looking to do business in the ‘fast lane’ or a reveler who loves soaking up the ecstatic energy of the atmosphere, Yas Island has it all,” said Karim El Guanaini, Vice President of Yas Island Destination Management in a press release. “Home to world-class attractions, Yas Island becomes the epicenter of socializing and excitement over the weekend everyone is looking forward to this year in the UAE.”

Despite its massive costs, planning efforts and development investment, staging the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been and continues to be a huge success for the region.

“You put yourself out there by such an extent that it says something about you as a city and a country,” said Rod Kohler, managing director for Public Relations at Revolution Sports + Entertainment. “It essentially says you’ve arrived.”





  1. This was a phenomenal event! We all look forward to it in the region…Jay Z was a highlight for me…can’t wait until next year!

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