Sports Saif Al-Noaimi looks ahead to stellar F1 season, 2024 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

ABU DHABI: Formula 1’s second race of 2024, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, may be less than a week old, but plans for the season-closing weekend in Abu Dhabi later this year are already being mapped out.

Saif Al-Noaimi, CEO of event organizer Ethara, has been keeping a close eye on developments on and off the track.

He told Arab News: “It’s been an interesting start to the season, Red Bull is back dominating, with (Belgian-Dutch racing driver) Max Verstappen leading the championship already after two races.

“But we’re seeing some nice battles within teams, some interesting battles, between (Charles) Leclerc and (Carlos) Sainz in the Bahrain Grand Prix, where Sainz outperformed Leclerc.

“We’re also seeing tension between some of the team members, (Daniel) Ricciardo and (Yuki) Tsunoda in Bahrain as well.

“But also, you’re starting to see that in other teams, the mix is a bit different than in previous years, which is good to see.

“You’re seeing some of the mid-tier teams coming up the ranks and starting to compete. Not up to the Red Bull level, but it’s a long season, 24 races. A lot will change between now and the summer, you’ll see a lot of changes, a lot of development, and I’m confident we’ll see some great, great racing.”

Arguably the story of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was the emergence of 18-year-old British driver Ollie Bearman, who finished seventh for Ferrari in his first ever F1 race after replacing the stricken Sainz.

Al-Noaimi said: “It was great to see his debut and scoring points in Jeddah. He’s been doing great in Formula 2, but this is really the first real test. And you’re starting to see a lot of talk about him getting a seat in Formula 1.

“The way in which he quickly had one practice session, qualified, and did the race, was competing with the top drivers in the world and was able to hold his ground and was able to put some nice manoeuvres, was great.

“It’s amazing to see the younger drivers, and I look forward to 2025, because we have a lot of seats that haven’t been confirmed yet in Formula 1, and you have some interesting talent coming up the ranks,” he added.

The second race of the season, also the Saudi debut of F1 Academy, the all-female series, has two drivers from the UAE and one from the Kingdom — Reema Juffali — among its 15 racers.

“It’s great to see the F1 Academy getting the exposure that it has received in the last year, but more importantly this year.

“It’s going to be an exciting season; it started the first round in Jeddah and the last round will be at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. We’re very proud to have two Emirati sisters participating as Yas Heat ambassadors, with Hamda Al-Qubaisi racing for Red Bull and Amna for RB.

“I think they did amazing. This is performing at the highest level in front of the best drivers and teams in the world. I’m very excited to see how this season and this championship goes, and then the progression of those drivers in the future is going to be interesting,” Al-Noaimi said.

Yas Heat has also provided several UAE-based drivers that excelled in the recently concluded Formula 4 UAE season.

“We had an amazing season, Keanu Al-Azhari was a contender and was very close to winning the championship. We’re very, very proud of his performance and he’s going to be doing great things in the future.

“Rashid Al-Dhaheri, likewise, won races in Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit, and then Dubai Autodrome. His first season in Formula 4 UAE and really his first time driving in Yas Marina Circuit and the Autodrome.

“So, it’s great to see his performance and we were very excited to have him come back for the Formula 4 UAE trophy race in 2024. I look forward to hopefully seeing him win or be on the podium,” Al-Noaimi added.

The 15-year-old Al-Dhaheri in particular has shown a pathway for other young Emirati drivers to follow.

“Absolutely, I think it’s definitely showing that it’s possible. It’s showing that you can start very early on in karting, from as early as six, seven years old, work your way up and now be racing Formula 4 at world championship levels, national championship levels, and competing with the best drivers in the world.

“I mean, the F4 UAE championship had the best F4 drivers from around the world.

“To see Rashid progress, grow, and mature and be where he is today, it’s definitely an inspiration to an entire generation of future drivers,” the chief executive said.

The 2024 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is not until December, but tickets are already on offer and selling fast.

“The Main Grandstand is sold out; the North Grandstand is sold out. We’re selling out very quickly, everything’s on sale right now, general admission, Abu Dhabi Hill, Horizon 360. All the grandstands are on sale and our premium hospitality with the world-class offerings are also on sale,” he added.

Al-Noaimi noted that all the viewing options and entertainment outlets that proved popular last year at Yas Marina Circuit would be returning during the next F1 weekend.

He said: “We always look at innovating and doing new things, so the new products that we launched last year will be returning.

“The Deck at 2, Horizon 360, these are things we tried for the first time in 2023 and they were extremely successful, the feedback was extremely positive. We are looking to bring those back and the return of the world-class branded food and beverage outlets like OPA, Ce La Vi, Roka, and Hakkasan.”

Statistics have shown that F1 fans have been spending an increasing amount of time on Yas Island in recent years and Al-Noaimi expected the trend to continue.

“Last year we launched what we call the Yas All In program, which is essentially access to the track, watching the races, access to after-race concerts, access to one of the theme parks on Yas Island. But then we took it also outside of the island with free access to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al-Watan, as well as other destinations.

“We are seeing that people are spending a lot more time in Abu Dhabi over the Grand Prix weekend than previous years.

“There’s a lot more to offer, and 2024 is no exception. We are always looking to expand our entertainment offering and our inclusion of where you can access with the tickets,” he added.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix continued to be a unique driver of tourism for the UAE capital, according to Al-Noaimi.

He said: “Last year, over 65 percent of Grand Prix attendees were coming from outside of the UAE. We had record attendance last year, around 170,000 attendees over the weekend.”

Another statistic revealed that 50 percent of those attending the race in 2024 where first-time visitors to Yas Marina Circuit.

“We’re seeing a lot more new attendees, a shift in the demographic. We’re seeing around 40 percent are under the age of 35 years, and we’re also seeing around 30 percent are females.

“F1 global audiences are shifting toward a younger audience, shifting toward more females following the championship and the series, and we’re seeing that on the ground over here,” Al-Noaimi added.

While the Formula 1 Grand Prix remains the jewel in the crown for Abu Dhabi, Ethara is also set to retain some of its most popular events again in 2024.

“Last year was a busy year for us. We had 1.3 million guests attend Ethara events in our first year of operation, which was a huge milestone for us. This year is shaping up to be an extremely exciting and busy schedule for us as well, a busy calendar.

“Obviously the flagship is the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and the NBA (National Basketball Association) Games returning to Abu Dhabi is something we’re really excited about. UFC Fight Night was recently announced for Abu Dhabi in August.

“And then we have a few other events that are taking place. We have Afroworld in the Coca-Cola arena, and Hai Ramadan and GameExpo at Expo City in Dubai. There’s a lot to be announced soon,” Al-Noaimi said.

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