After the first Formula 1 race in the Middle East was staged in Bahrain in 2004, it seemed safe to assume that it would be the region's only Grand Prix as the racing series pursued its worldwide expansion. But such a conclusion ignored the ambitions and rivalries of the other Gulf states and their budding passion for auto racing.
Other Middle Eastern countries had been mentioned as possible race sites, but Bahrain won the contract for that first race, beating Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Several years later, Abu Dhabi made a deal with Formula 1 to stage a race starting in 2009. It was not to be just another Gulf region Grand Prix, though: For the first time ever, a Formula One race would start in the daytime and finish at night.
The track, too, was an ambitious project. Called the Yas Marina Circuit, it was built on Yas Island, a 9.8-square-mile island off the east coast of Abu Dhabi. A giant Ferrari theme park was added next to the track and a hotel is partly built over it. Unlike other Formula 1 circuits, there is a tunnel between the pitlane and the track. Cars leaving the pit thus disappear from the view of spectators before returning to the track, and the drivers don't have much idea of what is happening on the track when they reach the tunnel exit. A runoff area at the end of the back straight runs underneath the grandstands, carrying drivers who make an error out of view.
Whether Formula 1 can truly establish itself in the region remains to be seen. Most of the automobile races in the Gulf are drag races, rallies, GT races and peripheral things like drifting races. The Yas Marina Circuit, though, is built specifically for Formula One and is still struggling to host local races, which are a priority, Richard Cregan, the director of the track, said in an interview with Sport360°, a Gulf-based newspaper.
''We still have to concentrate on developing local motorsport because that's what's important and I still believe there are a lot of very competitive U.A.E. national drivers out there,'' Cregan said. Advance ticket sales for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were up this year over the previous two editions. There are signs that this is linked to the quality of the races and heightened interest in an exciting 2012 championship.
In the race's first year, in 2009, Abu Dhabi nearly was the site of a grand finale title showdown, between Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull and Jenson Button of the Brawn team. But the week before, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, Button sealed the title.
The next week, Vettel drove to an easy victory in the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The racing itself was processional, which came as a surprise because the track had all the elements necessary to facilitate overtaking: long straights followed by tight corners or hairpins, and a winding, hilly sector that could push a driver to error.
The next year, however, the Abu Dhabi race was the most suspenseful and memorable of the season. Four drivers were still in the running for the title before the race, with Fernando Alonso leading the series in a Ferrari, Mark Webber second in the series in his Red Bull, Vettel in third in the other Red Bull, and Lewis Hamilton in fourth in a McLaren.
Alonso needed only to finish ahead of Webber to secure the crown. Hamilton's chances remained slim mathematically, while Vettel was third and had not led the series the whole season. In the 60-year history of the series, only two drivers - Giuseppe Farina in 1950 and Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 - had ever won the title in the final race by leaping from third to first in the series.
Vettel scored the pole position and Ferrari decided that Alonso had to focus on remaining ahead of Webber rather than watching Vettel. That strategy allowed the German to speed off and win the race, while Alonso failed to finish high enough to earn the points necessary to maintain his lead. In 2011, Vettel, the winner in the two previous Abu Dhabi races, arrived having already secured his second world title with 11 victories. But on the first lap, his car suffered a tire puncture and he dropped out. Hamilton went on to win the race.
In 2012 Vettel was pushed to the back of the grid after qualifying and had to start from the very back. He climbed up the pack throughout the race twice and finished on the podium, in third place, in one of his greatest drives. Not even his team imagined that he would be able to perform such an extraordinary feat. He finished the season as champion, with three points more than Fernando Alonso, thus earned at Abu Dhabi.