One of Abu Dhabi’s most exciting projects is the development of a multi-billion dollar cultural district like no other in the Arab world. Construction is in full swing and by 2012 visitors will be able to marvel at masterpieces from the Guggenheim and the Louvre in spaces designed by world-class architects like Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel.
We’re not going to sit on the beach until 2012 though, so in the meantime we decide to visit the Yas Marina Circuit, where the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held every year. Situated on a man-made island about 30 minutes from the city, the track is the Arabian version of Monaco, with several long straights and 21 corners.
We wander around the track’s backstage area where we meet Steve, a safety car pilot. “I can take you for a few laps if you’re up for it,” he says. He hands me a helmet and I follow him through the ‘stables’ where Ferraris, Porsches and even a Dodge Viper are lined up ready for action. Just as I start getting excited about what car Steve will pick, we stop in front of a Nissan. “Make no mistake!” Steve says. “This baby has a six-cylinder, 3.8L motor and reaches top speeds of over 300kph.” We get into the car and as soon as Steve starts the engine I realise that this is not just a car with go-faster stripes and a spoiler. “Ready for take-off?” he asks.
“Never been more ready!” I reply. Poor Steve probably thinks I’ve never been in a fast car before.
The engine roars as the car eases its way from the garage to the pit stop. As soon as we hit the circuit the car picks up speed and I am pushed back into my seat. The first lap is fast but smooth. “Cool,” I say.
“Wait,” Steve says. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” and he pushes the accelerator to the limit. The car rockets down the straight, powers past the grandstand in a few seconds and approaches the next corner. The speedometer’s pointer has hit 270kph and the curve is just 200 metres ahead. That’s when Steve slams on the brakes. The car slows down to 60kph for a few instants, but even as we are entering the curve Steve steps on the accelerator again to build up speed before the next curve.
After the third lap, Steve pulls up to the pit stop. The car stops, but I notice that the circuit is still moving. As I get out I also realise my vision is blurred and I lean against the car for support. “Are you okay?” Steve asks.
“Fine, never felt better!” I lie. “It was mind-blowing! But next time I’m in Abu Dhabi I might visit the Guggenheim instead.”