Unprecedented popularity of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix points to bright future for regional motorsports

Unprecedented popularity of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix points to bright future for regional motorsports
Red Bull’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen drives during the qualifying session on the eve of the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. (AFP)
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Updated 19 November 2022

Unprecedented popularity of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix points to bright future for regional motorsports

Unprecedented popularity of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix points to bright future for regional motorsports
  • CEO of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management Saif Al-Noaimi tells Arab News that track changes, new regulations and an expanding demographic are behind the sport’s skyrocketing profile
  • Previously, Yas Marina Circuit was considered a difficult track to overtake on, but according to Al-Noaimi, the feedback from the drivers has been overwhelmingly favorable

ABU DHABI: The drivers themselves may play it down, but a year on from the last Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, few racing fans or pundits can resist recalling that famous final lap, which saw Max Verstappen overtake Lewis Hamilton to win his first-ever title.
This season, Red Bull’s Dutch driver has retained his championship several weeks ago in less dramatic circumstances, but the memory of the 2021 finale lingers.
“It was a historic race,” said Saif Al-Noaimi, the CEO of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management. “The fact that Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton arrived with exactly the same points to Abu Dhabi, the final race of the season, the championship-deciding race…that is for me the memorable moment.
“We have to remember that last year, we modified the racetrack.
“It was no coincidence that arguably the most exciting Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in its 13-year history came after the track had been revamped to produce more wheel-to-wheel racing and provide more opportunities to overtake.
“It is fantastic to see the results of that work over the last summer, in 2021, and to see how competitive the race was. In that Grand Prix, we had 33 overtakes on the track and four lead changes. So clearly the effort and the changes that we’ve made to the track in 2021 have paid off.
“And it was a historic race, record number in terms of attendance on the ground last year. Then also, we had a record number in terms of viewers on the livestream — we had over 108 million viewers. It was actually the largest sporting event globally of 2021. So definitely a proud moment for us at ADMM.”
Previously, Yas Marina Circuit was considered a difficult track to overtake on, but according to Al-Noaimi, the feedback from the drivers has been overwhelmingly favorable.
“The feedback has been amazing. We did some interviews over the weekend last year, overall extremely positive. Generally, they were saying ‘We were able to follow each other better, we were able to stay closer, we’re able to overtake.’
“But for me also, the biggest piece of feedback is they said it felt like a completely different track. So, the changes were made to several corners, but the flow throughout the entire lap felt different. They felt that there was a good rhythm. And they were able to push and get more out of their cars. I think we saw that on the ground with the race.”
This year, there will be no titles up for grabs, but there is still a big battle for second place to be settled, and the demand for tickets is as high as it has ever been according to Al-Noaimi.
“We’ve had actually record numbers for Thursday and Friday attendance to Yas Marina Circuit over the Grand Prix weekend. We’re extremely prepared, and we’re planning for record numbers for (Saturday) as well as Sunday. We have some really exciting new products that we developed this year. We’ve increased our capacity. Because of the unprecedented demand, we had to build an additional grandstand for 5,000 spectators.
“And we’ve also built various hospitality units that accommodate 1,500 guests across the different parts of the venue,” said Al-Noaimi. “There are some fantastic new products with amazing views, like the deck at Turn 9, which is on the iconic Marsa Corner, with amazing views of that new bank corner at Yas Marina Circuit. It’s a completely new experience we created this year.”
Al-Noaimi also highlighted the food and beverage on offer, with restaurants like C’est La Vie, Luna Lounge and Opa.
“(We’ve had) unprecedented demand,” he added. “We’ve sold out in record numbers even though we increased capacity. We’re seeing a lot of interest and demand in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.”
The sport in general has seen a rise in interest, helped in large by the drivers’ embrace of social media and the Netflix show “Drive to Survive.” Al-Noaimi says these have played a big part in F1’s immense — and rising — popularity, but added there are many other, sporting, factors.
“Definitely we’re seeing an increase in interest in the sport, we’re seeing a changing demographic also. I would say there are multiple things,” he said.
“I think generally in F1 as a sport, the rules and the changes that they’ve made over the last few years — the cost cap, the new technical regulations for the cars in 2022 — (mean that) the racing on the track is a lot more exciting.
“You have to agree that Netflix played a role also in the growing interest. It’s providing a very different perspective to F1.
“F1 has always had the hardcore motorsport fan that follows the championship and watches the races, but now we’re seeing more of a different demographic that is becoming more interested. The great thing is they’re getting to see a different angle of the sport, they’re getting to see behind the scenes, they’re getting to see the challenges between the different teammates. They’re getting to see the team principals and different personalities in the sport. So it’s definitely a positive; it’s grown interest. But I would say there are multiple things that have caused this increase in demand for F1.”
On Sunday, Yas Marina Circuit will bid farewell to one of its early favorites when three-time Abu Dhabi winner Sebastian Vettel, of Aston Martin, walks away from the sport — for now.
“He’s definitely a legend of the sport; he’s the third most successful driver in F1 history,” said Al-Noaimi.
“I think he has done quite well in Yas Marina Circuit over the years. We’ve always been huge fans of Vettel and he won his first championship over here,” he said.
“So being the last race in the season, we’ve seen a lot of champions moving on from F1 into the next phase of their career, and in some cases, coming back, the likes of Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher.
“It’s obviously sad to see Sebastian (leave). I think he’s had a big impact on the sport. He’s definitely left his mark and he will always be remembered here at Yas Marina Circuit.”
With Abu Dhabi traditionally closing a season that includes Grand Prix races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and, imminently, Qatar, Al-Noaimi is optimistic that F1, and indeed all motorsports, will continue to grow in this part of the world.
“I think this region is extremely important for Formula 1, but also motorsports are definitely growing, and having four Grand Prix in the region is going to support that. I think we will all support and complement each other.
“We’re also seeing growth in grassroots motorsports. We as Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management are investing and ensuring that there are development programs and platforms to grow young talent in the UAE and in the region. We just launched our Yas Heat Academy just a couple of weeks ago, where we’re moving from karting and esports into circuit racing.
“We have our Formula Four UAE team that’s going to participate in this Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend for the first time, racing in front of the same fans.
“We’re seeing the F4 UAE Championship for the first time going outside the borders of the UAE. Potentially there could be further expansion in the region. We’re seeing other regional championships that have expressed interest, and I think in the next few years we’ll see a lot more opportunities for development and championships in the UAE.”
With such support and some of the best facilities in the world available, the big question remains: Will we see an Emirati driver rise through the ranks and eventually even race in F1?
“I have no doubt we’ll see Emirati drivers in the top tiers of motorsports in the next few years,” Al-Noaimi said.
“There is Rashid Al-Dhaheri. We actually just announced that he has joined us as an ambassador to our Yas Heat Racing Team. Rashid is still 14 years old. He’s not at the age of racing in F4. But he has done amazing in karting, winning international races and competing at the highest level.
“We’ve had Amna and Hamda Al-Qubaisi also making their way up the ladder in motorsports and racing Formula Three in Europe. They’ve done F4 as well.
“We have some exciting up-and-coming drivers in the UAE. I have no doubt that we will continue to see that grow and develop, and we do expect to see them at the top tiers of motorsports globally.”
 


Messi magic guides relieved Argentina past feisty Mexico

Messi magic guides relieved Argentina past feisty Mexico
Updated 27 November 2022

Messi magic guides relieved Argentina past feisty Mexico

Messi magic guides relieved Argentina past feisty Mexico
  • Messi equalled Diego Maradona's Argentina record of 21 matches and eight goals at the World Cup
  • Substitute Fernandez made sure of the three points when he curled a superb shot into the top corner in the 87th minute

LUSAIL, Qatar: Lionel Messi thumped in a 64th minute goal and Enzo Fernandez added another late in the game to give Argentina a 2-0 victory over battling Mexico in their World Cup Group C match on Saturday and reignite their tournament hopes.
Messi, who equalled Diego Maradona’s Argentina record of 21 matches and eight goals at the World Cup, was nowhere to be seen for more than an hour before picking up an Angel Di Maria pass, finding just enough space and rifling in from 20 meters.
Substitute Fernandez made sure of the three points when he curled a superb shot into the top corner in the 87th minute.
The result restored order for the Argentines in Group C after their shock opening 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia.
Argentina, on three points, can guarantee progress with a win over Poland, top on four, in their final game on Wednesday.
“Today starts another World Cup for Argentina,” Messi said. “I tell people the same thing, that they continue to believe.
“The first half we didn’t play as we should and in the second, when we calmed down, we started to play the ball better and until the goal we went back to being what we are.”
Mexico, who have now lost all four World Cup clashes with Argentina, have one point and must beat Saudi Arabia, on three, to have any chance of continuing their run of making the last 16 in the last seven World Cups, but even that might not be enough.
HIGH TENSION
With the prospect of an Argentina elimination, tensions were high on and off the ball in a scrappy first half but with the two sets of fans creating an electric atmosphere in the stadium.
The opening period did not live up to the match’s billing with neither team wanting to commit too many players forward and apart from a free kick by Mexico’s Luis Chavez in the ninth minute that sailed past the goalmouth there were few chances.
Mexico’s high pressing game stifled most of their opponents’ attack and Argentine talisman Messi, struggled to find any space to maneuver in a congested midfield.
Apart from a Lautaro Martinez effort that was well off the mark and another from Messi, Argentina were toothless up front.
But in a major blow to Mexico, skipper Andres Guardado, a veteran of five World Cups who until then had been a commanding presence in midfield, had to be taken off injured in the 42nd.
The Mexicans still carved out two more chances before the break with Alexis Vega first curling a free kick over the wall for keeper Emiliano Martinez to save and minutes later thundering a shot over the bar.
The South Americans looked more determined after the break but had no real chance before their 35-year-old captain dragged them out of trouble with his second goal of the tournament.
The stadium erupted in cheers once more with Fernandez’s late strike which sealed Argentina’s first win in the tournament and rekindled Messi’s hopes of a first ever World Cup title.


Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says

Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says
Updated 26 November 2022

Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says

Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says
  • ‘Don’t think that we are finished,’ Frenchman says after defeat by Poland
  • Green Falcons will play their final Group C game against Mexico on Wednesday

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s soccer players will remain focused and keep fighting until the World Cup’s last moments, their head coach said on Saturday after the team’s 2-0 loss to Poland.
“I am proud of my players and football is a team sport in which there is success and failure,” Herve Renard told a press conference. “The most important thing is that we have one match (left) and we must remain focused.”
After an epic win against Argentina in their opening game, the Green Falcons failed to soar to the same heights against Robert Lewandowski and his Polish teammates at the Education City Stadium in Qatar and so remain on three points in Group C.
Despite the disappointment, Renard said his team were far from giving in.
“We will play to the last second of this tournament and we will not give up,” he said.
“We will play the third match with the same energy and we need the fans to be present and fill the stadium against Mexico.
“We didn’t lose because of luck but because we weren’t so effective, and I will support all the players. I made a lot of changes after the first half to have a good reaction and get back into the game.”
The French coach said the reason he substituted Nawaf Al-Abed was because the player had suffered an ankle injury.
“I am very proud of what the players have achieved … we should have tied before the end of the first half,” Renard told Alkass Sports Channel, adding that his team had worked incredibly hard.
“The most important thing is that we remain standing here. And don’t you think that we are finished,” he said.
Poland’s coach Czeslaw Michniewicz was also full of praise for the Saudi team.
“They have good players,” he said. “The best for me is the captain, No. 10, Salem Al-Dowsari, and goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais, who is a great goalkeeper and saved dangerous balls from our players.”
Poland had gained a hard-fought victory “with two goals against a valuable team,” he said.
 


In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football

In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football
Updated 27 November 2022

In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football

In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football
  • ‘This is a really fun way to watch the World Cup,’ fan says
  • Live games, food and fun on offer as part of Riyadh Season

RIYADH: Saudi football fans unable to attend the World Cup in Doha have been enjoying the next best thing thanks to a designated fan zone inside Mrsool Park stadium.

Organized by the General Entertainment Authority as part of the Riyadh Season, the area features a giant screen for people to watch the game, as well as food and drinks stalls to keep them fed and watered.

On Saturday, the zone was full of fans hoping for a second win of the tournament — after the amazing victory against Argentina — but the Green Falcons came up short against Poland.

Football fan Ibtisam, who watched the game with her friends, was full of praise for the venue.

“The organization is really great and this is a really fun way to watch the World Cup and support our national team,” she said.

Because the game was being screened inside a real football stadium, the atmosphere was similar to that experienced by the traveling fans at the Education City Stadium in Qatar.

Abdulaziz Al-Subaie, who watched the game with his family, said: “It’s a great atmosphere and has allowed us to watch the game outdoors with the rest of the Kingdom.”

Riyadh Season had ensured the city was full of entertaining activities, he added.

Saleh Al-Subaie, who spent much of the match against Poland hugging his father because of the tension and excitement, was equally complimentary.

“I liked the fact that we have things to do here before the game and during halftime. Aside from watching the game we can enjoy fun games here with everyone.”

As well as watching the action on the big screen, fans were able to test their own football skills in a series of challenges or play one of the many video and virtual reality games.

Rawan Filimban said he hoped to attend the World Cup live one day but in the meantime thought the fan zone was a great alternative.

“Riyadh Season is really cool and watching the World Cup like this just adds to the fun factor. The fan zone in Mrsool Park is an experience I won’t forget.”


Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16

Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16
Updated 26 November 2022

Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16

Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16
  • Having scored four during France's victorious 2018 campaign and one against Australia, Mbappe now has seven goals in nine World Cup appearances
  • France were more wasteful in front of goal on this occasion

DOHA: Kylian Mbappe scored twice, including a late winner, as holders France edged Denmark 2-1 on Saturday to become the first team to reach the last 16 of the World Cup.
A potent French side knew a second victory in as many Group D outings would take them through to the knockout phase and they were well worth the lead that Mbappe gave them when he opened the scoring at Stadium 974 just after the hour mark.
However, Andreas Christensen soon equalized for the Danes and Les Bleus needed Mbappe to deliver again in the 86th minute as he turned in Antoine Griezmann’s cross to puncture the Danish resistance once and for all.
Having scored four during France’s victorious 2018 campaign and one against Australia, Mbappe now has seven goals in nine World Cup appearances.
Didier Deschamps’s side now have the luxury of going into their final group game against Tunisia knowing a draw will guarantee them top spot, and even a defeat may not prevent them finishing first.
Having come roaring back to batter Australia 4-1 in their opening match in Qatar, France were more wasteful in front of goal on this occasion but at least they did not come unstuck against opponents who have caused them problems before.
They were reigning champions when a defeat to the Danes knocked them out of the 2002 World Cup, while the sides played out the only goalless draw in 2018.
More recently Kasper Hjulmand’s side beat France home and away in this year’s Nations League, and it seemed that Deschamps had learned lessons from those two encounters.
If France were a shadow of their usual selves in Copenhagen in September, they were much better in this match, played in a pop-up stadium made of shipping containers on Doha’s waterfront.
Deschamps changed three of his back four, with Theo Hernandez at left-back in place of his injured elder brother Lucas and Raphael Varane coming in for his first game in over a month.
But the French attack was untouched from the Australia game.
If Olivier Giroud took the headlines then, here Ousmane Dembele was electric at times on the right, Griezmann excelled in an advanced midfield role, and Mbappe made the difference.
France’s pace, power and passing were all too sharp for the Euro 2020 semifinalists who were lucky to go in level at half-time.
There were some French appeals for a red card in the 19th minute when Mbappe burst onto a beautiful threaded through ball by Griezmann only to be hauled down by Christensen, but the Danish defender escaped with a yellow.
The holders’ best chances in the first half came from headers by Varane and Adrien Rabiot, but when Mbappe turned away from Joachim Andersen just before the hour mark and accelerated away, it was a sign that a goal was coming.
His shot was turned behind by Kasper Schmeichel, and Griezmann then wasted a great chance shortly after, but in the 61st minute Mbappe did score.
The Paris Saint-Germain superstar linked up brilliantly with Hernandez on the left and met his teammate’s cutback with a shot that beat Schmeichel thanks to a deflection off Christensen.
Denmark had offered little but suddenly they were level midway through the second half as Andersen nodded down a corner and his fellow defender Christensen headed home.
Hugo Lloris was then forced into a key save to deny Jesper Lindstrom and Martin Braithwaite grazed a post as Denmark threatened to turn the game completely on its head.
That would have been extremely harsh on France, even if they could only really have themselves to blame for not making more of their chances.
But Mbappe was not to be denied as he stole in front of Rasmus Kristensen at the back post with four minutes left to meet Griezmann’s cross with his thigh for his 31st international goal.


Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland
Updated 26 November 2022

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland
  • Game was an entertaining encounter that should have seen more goals
  • Green Falcons dominated possession, had more chances

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia lost 2-0 to Poland at Education City in Qatar on Saturday and remain on three points after two games in World Cup Group C.
Here are five things we learned from the match:
Saudi Arabia deserved something
It was an entertaining encounter that should have contained more goals, and many of them could have gone to Saudi Arabia. There may have been concerns that the win over Argentina was so big that it would be hard for coach Herve Renard to get his players down from cloud nine and focus on the task at hand, but that was not the issue. The problem was just a lack of clinical finishing. But there was plenty to like about the performance, with Salem Al-Dawsari and Mohamed Kanno particularly impressive.
Saudi Arabia had more of the possession and more of the chances. Even if we take away the missed penalty, there were plenty of opportunities for them to score. Unlike in the win over Argentina when the first two attempts resulted in goals, there was just no way past Wojciech Szczesny. The Poland goalkeeper had a fine game and there were examples of shots flying wide and over from good positions.
On another day, Saudi Arabia would have taken a point from this game, but they were punished by refereeing decisions, their own mistakes, not taking their chances and Poland making the most of theirs.
Harsh first half for the Falcons
Saudi Arabia played well in the first half, which lasted 55 minutes, but all the major incidents in the period went against them. First, Poland’s Matty Cash should have been sent off. The Aston Villa defender was booked for a late tackle but just a few minutes later somehow got away with a dangerous challenge on Mohammed Al-Burayk.
Had a second yellow been shown then Cash would not have been in an advanced position after 39 minutes to pass to Robert Lewandowski who then set up Piotr Zielinski to fire home. It was a goal that came totally against the run of play but that is what happens in football and Saudi Arabia will feel aggrieved that Poland still had 11 men on the pitch.
And then there was the penalty that came in added time as Saleh Al-Shehri was brought down in the area. In truth, Salem Al-Dawsari’s spot kick was not the best but Al-Burayk should have done better with the rebound. Going in level at the break against 10 men would have produced a very different second half.
This is a new, confident Saudi Arabia
What a difference a win against Argentina makes. If anyone was tuning in without knowing anything about the teams, they would have thought that the men in green were the favorites, with players active at the highest level, and that the ones in blue and white were the underdogs.
There were questions as to whether Renard would set his team up in the same way for the second game, and he did. The same, brave, high line was there, the same pressing and even more energy. Saudi Arabia flew out of the blocks and went at Poland, who did not impress in their opening 0-0 draw with Mexico. The Poles were clearly rattled, as three yellow cards collected in the first half of the first half showed.
This is now a Saudi team that knows it can trouble European and South American opposition and does not back down. This is an attitude that needs to continue.
Saudi Arabia have home advantage
Saturday’s game may have officially taken place in Qatar but it could have been Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam, such were the numbers of Saudi fans in the stadium. As well as the quantity, there was also quality, with noise levels reaching rarely heard heights at the tournament.
The atmosphere was something else and it spurred on the players. It also rattled the Poles who really struggled to settle. They were jeered when in possession, in contrast to the cheers that greeted Saudi Arabian possession. It took an opening goal before the Poles started to look even remotely comfortable. Whatever happens, the Saudi Arabian fans and the players have come together to make one of the stories of the World Cup, and Mexico will not be looking forward to visiting Lusail Iconic Stadium on Wednesday.
There is still all to play for and no reason to feel down
Fans will have to wait and see what happens in Saturday’s late game between Argentina and Mexico to know exactly what they have to do, but whatever happens, everybody would have accepted this position before the World Cup began. Three points from the first two games means the Falcons are in control of their destiny. A win over Mexico means that a place in the knockout stage is guaranteed. It remains to be seen if a draw will suffice.
Coach Renard will have to wait and see what happens with players who have collected knocks but there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Saudi Arabia have shown that they can live with their opponents. Glory awaits and with tens of thousands of fans behind them next week then anything could happen. The defeat against Poland does not need to be a devastating one and nobody should feel down.