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Wowed by F1's 'Arabian Las Vegas'

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F1 Mole | 10:53 UK time, Saturday, 31 October 2009

When Formula 1 returned to the desert for its season finale in Abu Dhabi memories of Bahrain sprang to The Mole's mind; the flat golden horizon, the dry heat and sand sweeping across the circuit - and everywhere else.

All these things remain the same in Abu Dhabi - just 263 miles east of Bahrain - but the Yas Marina circuit is something else entirely.

The £800m-track has been dubbed the 'Arabian Monaco' but there is more than a dash of Las Vegas panache to the island complex carved out of the desert.

Team BBC landed long after sunset on Wednesday but despite the darkness our first impression of the circuit was a jumble of "wow, crazy, amazing, it's huge!"

The scale of F1's 67th Grand Prix venue is staggering.

The five-star Yas Hotel straddles the circuit and dominates the sky-line, especially when its hooded roof lights up at night in an array of colours.

Look left, right, behind and there is something else scrambling for attention; the grandstands - built to seat 50,000 fans - the VIP Sun Tower, the man-made marina, which just six months ago was another patch of sand.

abmoleap595.jpgThe new Yas Marina complex has raised the bar for F1 facilities

That's not to mention the inescapable sight of the giant prancing horse painted on the roof of Ferrari World, a huge theme park and homage to the Italian team which will open in 2010.

Less than 32 months ago none of this existed. Yas Island had neither roads nor electricity. No wonder it took 14,000 workers and 35 million man hours to build the circuit out of the sand.

The oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi took on the challenge of an F1 race because it wanted to put itself on the world map, establish itself as tourist destination and reap future 'macro-economic' benefits.

So far everyone - including the drivers - seems pleased with what the emirate has accomplished in such a short time.

"You enjoy it because there is always something to do on the track," says Renault's two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. "There is no time to breathe".

Nico Rosberg, of Williams, added: "There is no criticism, every corner is unique."

The twilight race means the days here are long; there are extra security checks - including a vigorous body search at the entrance to the track - and some members of the BBC team have been low on hot water. But those are the only mild complaints.

Abu Dhabi has a seven-year deal and that could eventually be extended to 20 races if the spectacular circuit delivers an event to match.

The grandstands were far from full during Friday practice and organisers will be keen to avoid the kind of criticism that Turkey and China attract about a lack of local support.

It is intriguing that Abu Dhabi makes its bow on the F1 calendar just as one of its oldest venues fights for its place on it.

It can hardly have pleased the organisers that Silverstone, a track in the middle of England, is threatening to steal its headlines.

But this 17-stop season has proved that F1 needs a variety of tracks from Melbourne's Albert Park, to Monaco's winding streets, the mountainous thrills of Spa and the dazzling desert delights of Abu Dhabi.

McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh sums it up: "This is a special venue. F1 needs these but we must not forget the roots of the sport."

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