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Tue 3 Nov 2009 12:43 PM

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Form swallows function

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Abu Dhabi for the first F1 race in UAE history. In a word, it is amazing. The hotel is state-of-the-art. The venue is pristine.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Abu Dhabi for the first F1 race in UAE history. In a word, it is amazing. The hotel is state-of-the-art. The venue is pristine. The stands, snack bars, restrooms and relaxation space are all integrated seamlessly within the seating structure. And the track...ah the track...it is at once a testament to engineering pre-eminence and aesthetic brilliance. Even before the final race, as I write this article, drivers and pundits around the world are singing the praises of its design and sporting genius.

Like me, you’ll probably recall hearing about this particular piece of architecture about 18 months ago. The first F1 track interwoven with a hotel, they said. The longest straightaway on the F1 circuit, they boasted. The first F1 track to feature underground pit lanes, they extolled. All of this is true and, from a spectator’s point of view, it lived up to its original billing. But, in a few short hours, the F1 will have come and gone and all that excitement will have given way to an important question: Now what?

After an 18-month build up to an event that, I suspect, has been both musically and financially successful, what happens now? Sure, the F1 will come back in 12 months but until then, what happens? For anyone who’s traversed the new Sheikh Khalifa Bridge or had the chance to visit the F1 race, you know Yas Island is unfinished. Big time.

I mean no disrespect to Hani Rashid, designer of the Yas Island Hotel, but after this event, who is going to want to stay in a hotel on the middle of an island that is itself one big construction site? This week would have been fun with the races and the concerts but, believe me, Yas Island will be a much different place after the drivers and divas have gone home.

Furthermore, I have nothing but respect for renowned circuit designer, Hermann Tilke, who accepted the challenge 1001 days from the first green light and created a racetrack under ridiculous pressure, which now has the entire industry talking. But, again, you can’t run people, motorcycles, camels, horses or dogs on this track, so did Mubadala seriously invest £15 billion to have it sit dormant for 361 days of the year?

Kyalami Grand Prix in Gauteng, South Africa, doubles as a business park, featuring commercial, hospitality, conference and public meeting space. The Singapore Grand Prix weaves through a mix of modern, historic, public and government buildings. Casinos, hotels, marinas and restaurants bespeckle both the Monaco and Montreal F1 locations. But what is to become of the Abu Dhabi site?

The Grand Prix track in Bahrain and the Aspire Tower complex in Doha (which was also built amidst great fanfare for the 2006 Asian Games) are two regional examples of smallish markets that took on big events before their time and sit largely vacant for most of the year. Like many projects in the Gulf, form has supplanted function as the primary concern in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit and it’s a shame. It’s often said that with the gargantuan budgets and tiny chances for success, one of the most financially futile investments one can make is to run an F1 team. Perhaps the same can be said for building an F1 track in the middle of a construction site.

Jeff Roberts is the group editor of ITP Business’ design tiles.

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