Yas Marina Circuit rise to the occasion

Video: Coliseum Global Sports Venue Alliance (YouTube)

The scintillating Yas Marina Circuit is the venue for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The circuit was designed by Hermann Tilke, and is situated on Yas Island, about 30 minutes from the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi. Yas Marina is the second Formula One track in the Middle East, with the first being in Bahrain.

Brendan McGlinchey, Executive Director, Operations, Yas Marina Circuit, UAE, shares exclusively with ‘Coliseum’ during the recently held Coliseum Online Week MENA as regards the challenges and experiences of pulling off the 2020 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – the remarkable F1 – in the most challenging circumstances within a pandemic. And the challenges, he says, were “enormous and varied”.

The Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020 was held from December 11th-13th, 2020.

Brendan McGlinchey started off by revealing that the 2020 F1 was “Absolutely unique, every single thing about it as the world was no longer the same what with the outbreak of COVID-19. But, before I go into the details on that I would like to take a nice step back. Look at the memory line. Look at 2019, so that you can paint a picture what it was like and the changes we had to go through.”




Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2019

Reminisced McGlinchey, “2019 was the 11th year of F1. It was the most successful, it was the biggest, it was commercially successful, and more fans – over 100,000 people throughout the weekend. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – it is all about creating excitement in real time. It was really a great weekend. It’s not just the race we conduct. It’s a destination weekend. It is a five-day event at the venue supported by four first-class concerts. So, the whole field of Yas Island makes the event so special. It is about creating destination of choice for Yas Island, Abu Dhabi itself and also to make it a global F1 destination.”

He pointed out that the F1 mirrors the culture of the people of the region. A very mature and detailed planning process goes behind it which incorporates project management, stakeholder engagement and again this has grown over the 11 years.


COVID strikes


Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020

Come 2020 and COVID-19 hit the world and everything stopped in its tracks. He lamented that COVID decimated the F1 calendar – “The Melbourne Grand Prix got canceled two days before the start of the event. And then all Grand Prixs were pushed back to July. Suddenly, safe corridors, bubbles, biospheres were the new language which came to the fore.”

The world was not the same anymore and wearing masks and carrying sanitizers had become the new normal. Even for holding events, different scenarios had to be worked out and it was no different for the 2020 F1 spectacle.


Weighing pros and cons

  • Introducing scenario planning – hundreds of scenarios were planned for the 2020 F1 race and how things could run;
  • Severe cost management because it was going to be a no-fun event which means revenue was also decimated;
  • For the F1 staff, roles of responsibilities changed – there was no support staff coming in and people had to accept new ways of working;
  • Project approach was operationally led; and
  • New language came to the fore – air bridges, biospheres, inner cordon, outer cordon – all these had to be put in place.

McGlinchey informed, “We had to really start hand in hand with Government entities, hand in hand with our stakeholders, and as we dived deep into the different levels of planning – our plan, our aim was the Grand Prix before us. On a piece of paper our plan was 3,000 people from the non-biosphere into the biosphere. This kind of a scenario we had never experienced before and this was just the beginning of the journey.”

He stated that Abu Dhabi probably had this strongest control measures for any entry keeping in mind the coronavirus situation. The Dubai-Abu Dhabi border was closed so, everything was multiplied – “However, what we found which was a real great success of this was that our stakeholder engagement worked and we got so much help and cooperation from our colleagues, external stakeholders, Government entities, medical authorities, security authorities, it was people with whom we have never really dealt with before who went all out to help us in organizing in a safe and smooth manner the 2020 F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.”


Precision planning:

  • Strict COVID-19 testing protocols;
  • Planning for how many tests to be done;
  • 12,000 COVID tests over the 10-day Grand Prix period;
  • Quarantine for different groups; and
  • Ongoing testing for the F1 teams when they arrive;

“Our partners really came to the fore on this – we got great partners, great stakeholders as well and in the air bridge people movement – Abu Dhabi Airport and Etihad Airways did a fantastic job along with Yas Marina Circuit staff to plan this migration of so many people. Come into an airport, be tested, secluded from everybody else, move quickly into buses which were obviously socially distanced – massive amount of logistics went into doing this,” the top official commented.

He added, “We started looking at scenario planning and we had what we called inner and outer cordon. The inner cordon was to be a biosphere and the biosphere would stretch from a safe route to the track. The rest of the planning was the outer cordon. So, from the airports, Abu Dhabi was the outer cordon and some of the venues were also outer cordon, and the inner cordon was the track.”

Strict coronavirus protocols were in place for the F1 teams as well as the workforce. Everybody had to undergo tests and quarantined for a certain period. The rest of the track had real control, tight security control and this was the outer cordon. There was testing protocols at each stage.

McGlinchey put in, “The different scenarios being worked out were so complex, so time-consuming and we were working ridiculous hours just to get the authorities’ approval on these plans.”


Final Scenario

  • Complete biosphere;
  • Inner cordon biosphere;
  • From Bahrain to Abu Dhabi Airport – international collaboration throughout;
  • Integrated great communication, great teamwork, highly dedicated staff, huge level of responsibilities for movement of people;
  • Detailed execution;
  • Sixty percent of cargo belonging to F1 teams transported along air corridor;
  • Testing stations throughout; and
  • Hotels on circuit within the biosphere.

He informed that the whole of the Yas Marina Circuit was not activated and due to integrated and highly detailed execution, “the three-day racing spectacle seemed like a cakewalk even amid the COVID clobber”.


Cornerstones of success

  • Preparations;
  • Detailed planning;
  • Stakeholder engagement;
  • Government entities’ support;
  • Security, health staff support; and
  • The people’s cooperation.

He gave a big shout-out to the F1 teams who “were absolutely integral to the exercise of organizing such a spectacular racing event and showed high levels of professionalism in everything that they did.”

The top shot also had a word of praise for the Yas Marina Circuit staff who “adapted amazingly and took on extra roles in such a challenging COVID-19 situation. Extra hands were not brought in.”


Lessons learned

McGlinchey wrapped up by stating, “We will never want to organize any F1 event amid such huge challenges which we had to face in 2020. But, due to the grit and determination of the entities involved and teamwork we could pull it off so well even amid the pandemic. We look at this as an opportunity to extend partnerships. We are planning for the 2021 Grand Prix already. We don’t know how the COVID landscape will look but we know what can be done in the most difficult circumstances with minimal budget and minimal workforce. So, we look forward to this year and like everybody we hope it’s a different world. We did great in delivering a 2020 F1.”

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