Paddock Diary: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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A season which, at one stage, looked like it might not happen at all came to a successful conclusion with its 17th race last weekend. Dieter Rencken brings his final Paddock Diary of 2020 from the Yas Marina circuit.

7th December – Bahrain

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix week starts with an airlift by Etihad Airlines from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi as part of a ‘Covid Corridor’ agreement between with the two states. The ‘bridge’ prevents the need for quarantine, provided personnel remain within a secure biosphere established on Yas Island, site of the final race.

All F1 personnel are tested at the airport upon arrival, then need to isolate in their respective hotels for 12 or so hours until their Covid results are received.

Bahrain was warm, efficient and welcoming; Abu Dhabi is the polar opposite. The biosphere provides a captive market for hoteliers, with food and accommodation prices being utterly ridiculous – up to 400% the standard rates despite no spectators being admitted to the race.

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Yas Marina, 2020 Out go paper menus and in come QR codes, meaning prices are hiked without the need for reprinting; the gouging is absolutely disgraceful and blatant: When I asked hotel management when food prices will revert to ‘normal’, I’m unashamedly told: “When the F1 ends [after testing] on Wednesday…”

Before being informed of the biosphere I’d booked four-star accommodation on the mainland for a quarter the rate of a three-star in the biosphere. Although the media was eventually offered a reduced rate it still panned out at double my internet booking. It is time circuits realised that we pay to report on their races, and the numbers need to add up.

As for hotel food quality: leathery hake and frizzled fries at 35 quid; eight bucks for a can of Coke. About the only favourable thing about the arrangement is that the hotels are within walking distance of the circuit.

8th December – Yas Marina

Revealed: How Schumacher and Resta fit into Ferrari’s new-era customer team model at Haas
I spend the day penning my weekly column on the pending Ferrari/Haas technical cooperation for 2022, as revealed here previously. It made me wonder which outfits will team up next. The end game will surely be five A-teams, each with a B-team in tow.

It’s not what F1 is all about, but the last time a stand-alone team from F1’s nether ranks won a grand prix was ‘Lotus’ with Kimi Raikkonen in the 2013 Australian Grand Prix. Since then, the only winners from outside of the major ranks are AlphaTauri and Racing Point, both of whom collaborate with ‘A’ teams – Red Bull and Mercedes respectively – and in both instances this year. Sad, but true.

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9th December – Yas Marina

I planned to relax by the pool while catching up on some reading, but as always in F1 something surfaces, in this case the Nikita Mazepin video.

Folk question why the FIA has not banned him rather than merely issuing a statement of condemnation. However, the act, disgusting as it is to most, occurred outside of the governing body’s jurisdiction and was not criminal. Thus, any sanction could potentially be overturned by a court of law. Billionaire boys can afford expensive lawyers.

With Yuki Tsunoda likely replacing Daniil Kvyat at AlphaTauri next year, Mazepin has arrived just in time to continue an almost unbroken run of Russian talent in the sport over the past decade.

The first, Vitaly Petrov (2010-12), was followed by Daniil Kvyat (2014-17), who was benched by Red Bull. Sergey Sirotkin filled the gap for a year (2018), and no sooner does the Williams driver lose out than Kvyat returns in 2019. After a two-year stint he leaves F1, and in comes Mazepin. Coincidence?

10th December – Yas Marina Circuit

First proper day in the Abu Dhabi ‘office’, with the afternoon filled by Zoom conference calls. It’s a sad reflection on the state of F1 that so many talented drivers – Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen, Kvyat and potentially Alex Albon – are out of F1 next year while a generation of pay drivers with bulging pockets appear.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2020Over the years I’ve gotten on well with them all. True, we had prickly moments, but these are part of F1, and I’m sad to see them go. ‘KMag’ and I shared many a joke and his team mate was always ready with quotes. ‘Checo’s’ dogged determination in the heat of battle was masterful, while Daniil strung searing laps times together. Alex has always answered tough questions – and he’s had a few this year – most politely. Super-sub Nico Hulkenberg, too, deserves a seat and I hope they return soon – all of them.

In the early evening I receive news from a contact who has connections at the airport that Lewis Hamilton – who missed the previous race following a positive Covid-19 test – has landed following a private flight from Bahrain. The world champion had apparently tested negative and was ready to return. The information proves on the money. Again the chasm between ‘us and them’ became evident: We’d been warned that only folk who travelled within the airlift would be granted access to the biosphere.

11th December – Yas Marina Circuit

I arrive at circuit at midday and head for a Covid test – hopefully the last of 2020. Where Bahrain’s procedure was quick and painless, Abu Dhabi’s is, you’ve guessed it: administratively slow, procedurally laborious and amongst the most painful – and I’ve had several rather uncomfortable tests. Possibly a medical expert can explain reasons for the differences because I simply don’t get it.

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12th December – Yas Marina Circuit

It emerges that McLaren has sold a 15% stake in its racing division to MSP Sports Capital, a Californian sports group that previously expressed interest in Force India and Williams. The investment group has an option to increase its holding to 33%, valuing McLaren Racing at £560m. Following a chat with the various principals I’ll reveal the full back story later this week.

13th December – Yas Marina Circuit

Helmet for Chase Carey, Yas Marina, 2020As I watch Hamilton and Max Verstappen present F1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey with a red helmet signed by all the drivers I reflect on his tenure since coming into F1 in 2017 as a rank outside, having not attended a grand prix before his appointment. Could Bernie Ecclestone have delivered 17 races under Covid, revamped F1’s complex revenues, completed a new Concorde Agreement and introduced three sets of regulations – including a budget cap – in under four years? I doubt it.

After the race I head for media sessions, but with a twist: As an experiment for next year the FIA permits drivers to enter a socially distanced ‘mix zone’ for face-to-face interviews. This has already enabled us to bring additional coverage your way. It’s still not what it was pre-Covid, but it’s surely a step in the right direction.

14th December – Dubai

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2020 Depart for home from Dubai with Emirates. Even the 125 kilometre road journey, one I’ve done around 40 times in a rental car, is fraught with challenges. Only authorised cars are allowed into the biosphere so the only option is to book a (socially distanced) shuttle with three colleagues and pray our circuit-issued Covid certificates work at the Abu Dhabi/Dubai border. If you read this on Monday, they have.

The homeward flight marks the end of the weirdest season I’ve experienced since 1997, when I first started covering F1. It’s been a year of ups (more) and downs (many), but there are no doubts that F1 is stronger as a result. I managed to attend eight Covid grands prix – trips to Russia and Portimao were cancelled by airlines at short notice – and Keith two, making it 10 between us, which is 10 more than we imagined in the bleak days of March.

Next stop for F1 is testing on March 2nd-4th in Barcelona. Until then, have a great festive season and keep reading RaceFans!

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2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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16 comments on “Paddock Diary: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix”

  1. Thanks for everything Dieter, and you have a great and restful festive season too!

  2. Nicholas O'Neill
    14th December 2020, 18:23

    Thank you, Dieter. Awesome as always. Stay safe and have a great break!

  3. Thanks for the final paddock diary this year @dieterrencken.

    From what I’ve seen, it looks like the more experience the personell have, the less painfull they do the sticking up the nose bit.

    Abu Dhabi – the race track. It looks great, but the experience is kind of drab and overpriced. Sadly that pretty much confirms the impression of the place i had from earlier seasons.

    1. @bascb I’ve been to the Abu Dhabi GP once and don’t share the same view as in your last paragraph. My visit happened, of course, pre-COVID (2016), so the biosphere or restrictions of any sort, in general, weren’t in place, which reduces comparability, but still. I’ve visited Abu Dhabi (and UAE in general) twice in total – the other occasion taking place last January when I walked most of the track in the opposite direction. Out of the events I’ve done in person so far, the Abu Dhabi GP is my top favorite. I’ve also attended Italian (2010), Hungarian (2012), and Russian GP (last year), once each. Monza is my favorite driving-wise, but Yas Marina Circuit beats the other three when it comes to the facilities. Being the season finale also has an impact on this, as does the warm weather at this time of year, etc.

      1. I guess it depends a lot on what you are looking for @jerejj. Overpriced is something that more or less goes with any race, I think (although my last Hockenheim race was actually fine for prices).

        I really liked the Austria race. Great weather, we had a week of touring the mountains ahead of the race. And with GA we could see most of the track from where we were sitting. And the track has some great parts and offers overtaking. To me Yas Marina is an example of what people attract to impressive looking stuff without heart and spirit. For too high a price.

        In the end, there’s boatloads of impressively luxurious hotels in the world. But IMO once you’ve seen some of them, it kind of gets all the same (actually that is often on purpose, since it makes the people who frequent them feel more at home).

        1. As an F1 fanatic from sub-saharan Africa, there are only a handful of races whose attendance doesn’t involve some form of humiliating grovelling for a visa. Abu Dhabi is one of them (Singapore is the other but it is obviously a lot more pricey). I think – ironically – Bahrain and China – are also manageable. Getting a visa for the rest of the venues is a dehumanising process that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I won’t get into the details but trust me, it is lousy. And yet, attending a race in person is such an experience (regardless of the quality of racing on track) that it is considered a must-do for most fans. I think about these issues whenever I see calls to get rid of the Yas race and realise that most people aren’t even aware of them.

          1. Brazil is not open to your passport? You don’t say where you are from, but its open to most passports. What about Russia and Azerbaijan? I move in and out of both on a South African passport without issues.

          2. @dieterrencken– I’m from Uganda. Our passports are significantly “weaker” than yours down south. I still need a visa for Brazil but I’m not sure how hard it is to get one. I concede it may be easier than most European and North American countries. Note that of the countries I mentioned, only Singapore is visa-free for me. I also need a visa for the UAE. The crucial difference is that getting one for the UAE is pretty straightforward and as a result, I’ve been able to attend the GP on a near annual basis since 2014. As a matter of fact, even South Africa visas are a pain for us to get although there have been attempts to streamline the process since I last went through it a decade or so ago.

          3. @dieterrencken At the moment, Uganda’s passport power is indicated as being the same as Zimbabwe’s, which has rarely been regarded a powerful passport since independence. Both currently allow visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel to 58 countries right now. In Uganda’s case, most of those countries are either on the western coast of Africa, or on a north-east to south-west band from Ethiopia to Namibia.

            This is a recent development: between 2017 and 2019, Uganda allowed considerably more access, which was as high as 72 countries at one point last year. For scale, the average nation’s passport allows access to 77 countries at this moment.

  4. Of course, it’s a mere coincidence. Yes, the timing of Mazepin entering F1 at the same time as Kvyat is about to (or rather will) end up with nothing (again) is interesting, but for sure, no correlation between these two.

  5. Thank you for bringing your thoughts and experiences to this forum each GP weekend Dieter. I for one enjoy reading them. I bet you can’t wait for some decent post Covid food whenever they might eventuate :) Fish & Chips and a Coke? Yikes! I hear they were serving Lobster Thermidor in one of the hospitalities last weekend :)
    Happy Holidays.

  6. I don’t think either Bernie or Max Mosley would have been able to have a Formula One season at all had they been in control of FOM and FIA at this point in time.

    Bernie would have likely insisted to everyone involved that they could have continued racing every race and then any cancellation would be on the race track organisation and not on the FOM. Leaving them all to cancel and eat the cost. The only alternative I see happening under Bernie is that he might have tried to make a deal with a safe track, like UFC did with Fight Island (which, in case you didn’t know, “fight island” is actually Yas Marina Circuit), and just held a number of boring races on that track and called it a day. I certainly don’t seem him eating any costs like FOM did under Liberty, just to have a season at all, if we’re talking investment-fund FOM rather than Bernie-owned FOM.

    1. I think the season would have lasted 1 race – the last race F1 ever did with Bernie.

      Bernie would have stuck to his guns in Australia, whinged at McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes for withdrawing and then run the race without them. The remaining F1 paddock would have been arrested before they left the paddock and every other venue would have broken their contracts with them with court approval (therefore no compensation paid).

      They might have agreed to a deal post-COVID, but at a much lower rate and with someone else at the helm. But F1 might not have survived the process.

  7. A bit off topic here, but bemused to see Uralkali issue a press release saying they intend to appeal the High Court judgement that FRP didn’t do anything wrong in the Force India sale. They make it seem that Formula 1 is a vital marketing tool for a potash and fertiliser company based entirely in Russia.

  8. It may interest you to know that public displays of affection (reciprocated or otherwise, consented to or otherwise) are a criminal offence in the UAE – and yes, in a tax counts as “public” there. (Many other countries would find this strange, on any/all of several levels). In fact, I’d assumed the tepid response was to prevent anyone from the FIA or Haas accidentally getting arrested for “promoting” a public display of affection (also a criminal offence in the UAE, and also interpreted broadly, especially when it is foreigners doing the responding).

    1. * – in a taxi, obviously.

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