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Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina has held the final race of the Formula 1 season more often than not since it joined the championship calendar in 2009.

But despite its enviable facilities and unique features, including a pit lane exit which passes beneath the circuit and an on-site hotel which crosses over it, a crucial aspect of the track has tended to disappoint. Its layout has generally failed to produce exciting races.

After last year’s race the site operators and Formula 1 finally decided to address the problem. Motorsport architects Driven International were enlisted to revise the original layout produced by Tilke Gmbh.

“I think Covid kind of focused the mind a little bit,” explains Ben Willshire, managing director at Driven, reflecting on last year’s finale at the track which was held behind closed doors due to the pandemic.

“In the past, whilst there was some criticism about the racing, there was still fantastic concerts, a good atmosphere and a sold-out Paddock Club. And then suddenly with Covid last year, none of those are the niceties were happening. So the focus was on the track and the race and I think there was a bit of disappointment that there wasn’t a lot of overtaking.”

F1 was also eager to see better racing at the track. The call was therefore made to overhaul a layout which was designed little more than a decade ago, a decision Willshire praised: “That’s a fairly big ask when you’ve got a track that is relatively young compared to a lot of circuits, to take it on the chin and say ‘we want to look at this and we want to see what we can do to make the track better’.”

New turn five, Yas Marina, 2021 FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi inspects the changes

The alterations to the track were made in conjunction with MRK 1 Consulting, regional experts in the field headed by Mark Hughes, who brought valuable knowledge of the facility having previously been its operations director.

F1 themselves also gave input into the circuit design. As next month’s race will be the last for the current generation of cars, the series was keen to ensure the changes at Yas were done with an eye to how racing should change after the arrival of the 2022 machines, built to new regulations intended to aid overtaking.

“Over time the rules have changed regarding the cars, the cars have evolved,” Hughes explains. “Track design has changed a little bit and in recent years there’s been some criticism of the lack of exciting races at the track and that criticism has been picked up by both the circuit and by Formula 1, and they have conversations directly between the two of them about what they can do about that.”

Giancarlo Fisichella, Ferrari, Yas Marina, 2009 Overtaking at Yas has been difficult since its first race

“So there were conversations between senior management at Yas Marina Circuit and by Ross Brawn’s team at Formula 1 and conversations around how they could make some modifications to the track, particularly with a with a focus on next year’s cars and the regulation changes and stuff like that.

“So whilst they’re hoping that the racing will be improved for this year, they were mindful of the fact that if the cars change what they don’t want is to spend a lot of money changing the track and then that’s unravelled by the changes to the technical rules.”

The possibility of altering the track to aid overtaking was mooted for a long time before the circuit owners committed to it. Original designer Hermann Tilke even indicated changes were in the work at one stage. Proposals he drew were among those considered in the early stages of designing the 2021 changes.

The designers also referred to the wealth of ideas generated by fans and shared online. “When you’re looking at a circuit we see lots of designs,” Willshire explains. “Myself and Mark spend a lot of time reading what fans are saying online and part of that design process was looking at what people were saying. It’s interesting to compare what the professionals are thinking versus maybe some of the amateur track designers or fans.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Yas Marina, 2020 Report: Yas Marina changes will slash F1 lap times by “10 to 15 seconds”

However a finished, professional design has to consider many more variables than a flat two-dimensional drawing can account for.

“Usually what we see at a concept stage and what we see [from] the fans is very much like a 2D line drawing, it’s a plan of a circuit with a line: ‘this is what I would do, this is some ideas’. Where we come in really is how do you then implement that in reality?

“Because as soon as you get onto the ground, what may seem like a flat circuit is not flat in reality. A metre or two of gradient change makes a huge impact on what you can really do in implementing a track design.

“You’ve also got things like the FIA safety simulations to consider, what TecPro barriers are going where, you’ve got drainage and kerbs that are already in place. In many ways upgrading a track is much harder than designing one from scratch. I would compare it to refurbishing a hotel or a house when you’ve got certain constraints that you have to work within and things you can and can’t touch.”

Having taken that into consideration, along with the ever-present limiting factors of cost and time, the team settled on three major changes which they believe will “make the most meaningful impact” on the quality of racing at this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

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New turn five

New turn five, Yas Marina, 2021 The approach to the remodelled corner

One of the most criticised features of the original design was the inclusion of a slow chicane immediately before another tight hairpin. The existence of the chicane meant minimal run-off was needed at the hairpin, allowing the fans to sit close to the action. The problem was the combination of slow corners meant the racing action too often failed to thrill.

Although the necessary asphalt already existed, simply bypassing the existing chicane was not an option for F1 as the original hairpin would be approached at high speed and require more run-off space. But nor could they simply tear up the chicane.

“Part of the brief was they want to retain the chicane for their driving school and their other activities because they use it for World Rallycross and karting,” Willshire explains.

Therefore a new hairpin had to be constructed with room for the chicane to merge into the track. “Naturally you end up with a late-apex corner because it’s the only place you could put the kerb.

“Actually, it works in our favour. So what we did is we opened up the inside to make it a super-wide hairpin, we’re up at 20 metres wide and you’re coming down now [from] over 300kph.”

New turn five, Yas Marina, 2021 The chicane had to be kept, but F1 won’t use it

The drivers will brake down to 110kph for the new hairpin. “The braking zone is actually in front of the fans. Before, the braking zones was back before the chicane so you weren’t actually seeing the cars braking in front of you, which I think is a spectator is one of the most impressive things you can see a Formula 1 car do.”

The longer approach should give drivers more of an opportunity to attack or defend on the way into the corner. The track has been widened at the exit and an aggressive kerb installed to deter drivers from running wide to keep position.

“The track actually comes out wider than the old circuit,” says Willshire. “It widens on the exit and then ties back in. That was again to carry more speed through the corner, more momentum on the exit to allow the cars to follow more closely, but also to get the racing closer to the fans.

“We wanted to bring the crowd at the track as close as possible without disrupting the views because of the sightlines to the grandstand. So the fans on the entry and the exit of this corner now are going to get a real treat sat in this grandstand, they’re going be really, really close to the cars under braking and accelerating.

New turn five, Yas Marina, 2021 The new corner is wider and quicker than the old hairpin

“Importantly, we’ve also designed a double-width kerb here on the exit, and we’ve got no Astroturf on any of our designs. We’re shifting towards a double kerb design that we believe will be a big deterrent for the drivers to stay off the run-off.”

Avoiding the use of artificial grass was a key consideration as it is expensive to install and maintain, particularly at venues like Abu Dhabi which experience regular high temperatures. An extremely strong cement-like adhesive has to be used to prevent powerful F1 cars tearing it up.

The team also considered changing the following chicane, originally numbered seven and eight, but after studying footage of past races decided they were happy with it.

“If we actually look back at all of the highlights of the Formula 1 races over the past years you see that the cars are able to stay close to one another or get side by side pretty much three-quarters of the way down this back straight,” says Willshire.

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New turn nine

Yas Marina 2021 and previous layout The revised Yas Marina circuit

The four-corner sequence of turns 11, 12, 13 and 14 has been replaced with a single, sweeping new bend, turn nine. The early inspiration for this came from the changes made at Zandvoort, where two banked corners were added for F1’s return earlier this year.

New banked corners at Zandvoort inspired turn nine changes

However as Hughes explained practical obstacles prevented as steep a banking as the 18-degree turns built at the Dutch venue.

“In the original concept we were talking about having a significantly banked corner. There were studies done on Zandvoort on the corners there.

“But the physical infrastructure around there is very different to what they have at Zandvoort. In order to have a significantly banked corner there obviously you’ve got to have a banked run-off area as well and by the time you do that you end up with, we calculated, something like a six-metre high retaining wall at the back of the run-off area.

“Behind there is the access road to the marina and it’s a mooring for some of the yachts. And even some of the boats would have struggled to see anything on the track if we’d gone for that level of retaining wall. So inevitably there was a bit of a compromise there.”

The final design involved a shallower banking but one which should still allow for impressively high apex speeds of around 250kph.

“Now you’ve got high-speed entry or medium-speed entry, 5% camber which allows the drivers to carry the speed through the corner,” Willshire explains. “It’s extra-wide, and then it really just gives multiple lines on the exit.”

Again the team has tried to use physical means to keep drivers within the intended confines of the circuit. “On the exit we have designed another aggressive, double-width kerb to control the track limits so drivers will be encouraged to stay on the correct side of the white line.”

Lance Stroll, Racing Point, Yas Marina, 2020 Cars will approach the fast new banked turn at speed

Although the entry speed to the corner is higher than with the previous combination of slow turns, the team intends that not only will overtaking be possible here, but removing the old set of slow corners will prevent the field from separating, as happened with the previous configuration.

“Traditionally the left-hander at the end of the straight was an overtaking spot,” says Willshire. “Particularly in Formula 1 it was a sharp left-hander at the end of a long straight, your typical long [DRS] straight into a tight hairpin.

“What we noticed is that after the overtake there’s a lot of stop-start and what happens is by the time you’re then running into sector three towards the hotel, if an overtake’s happened, the car behind can’t stay close. You get the concertina effect, it starts to fall behind, and by the time you’re into the hotel sequence, the overtake has happened and that race between those two drivers has almost come to an end.

“So what we’re hoping to see here is cars running side-by-side on the approach to the corner. It will either create a very, very brave overtaking move – the equivalent of overtaking into the Parabolica or another high speed corner [some] side-by-side racing into the turn – or actually will some of the some of the drivers stay behind but then follow closely through the corner, use the 5% camber to stay close, use the wide track to get a different line and actually, by the time they’re coming out of the corner and into the hotel sequence, they’re still able to stay close to one another.

“The idea of this corner is to provide a signature, high-speed challenge for the drivers. It should reward bravery, it should reward different thinking around different lines. But ultimately what it’s designed to achieve is to allow the racing to continue around the rest of the lap.”

Hughes oversaw the construction work at the track

This is the same philosophy behind the change at turn five. “What we’re trying to do here is to keep the cars close together throughout the entirety of the lap. What we don’t want to do is have a slam-dunk one overtake and then they separate apart. We want to keep the racing going around the entirety of the lap and then punish mistakes by drivers and give more opportunities for closer racing around the whole lap.”

An alternative and more conventional solution involving a tighter corner was considered, but this proved too difficult to fit within the existing infrastructure in this area of the track.

“One of the designs that we did look at was more of a pinched apex on the entry and then widening out on the exit almost like turn 11 at Bahrain, the end of the back straight the left hander that opens out,” says Willshire. “We really like that corner, it generates different lines. But some of the things that would have done, it would have created a bigger braking zone and separation of the cars, which is obviously what we’re trying to avoid.”

“Also the exit of the corner really had to be where it is,” he added. “There’s some power cables running up to the Marina, which obviously is fairly crucial, but also there is some light generators and all of the lighting infrastructure in here which create constraints.”

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Turns 12, 13, 14, 15

Esteban Ocon, Renault, Yas Marina, 2020 Cars will take less time to pass beneath the hotel

The final and more modest alteration to the track is the easing of four consecutive corners which lead the cars up to and underneath the Yas Viceroy hotel. The first of these was turn 17 – it will be turn 12 on the remodelled course.

“Essentially all of these corners have just opened up on the inside,” says Willshire. Some of these corners featured negative camber which had been a focus of criticism from drivers, including Esteban Ocon after last year’s race.

The team looked into changing this aspect of the original design but concluded the knock-on effects doing so would be too problematic. Therefore the negative camber at turns 13 and 14 – the left-handers immediately before and after the bridge – remains.

“When you’re repaving a Formula 1 track, the top surface – the wearing course, as it’s referred to, – is usually around 40mm depth,” Willshire explains. “If you’re flipping cambers around over the width of the circuit, which is between 12, 14 or even 20 metres wide in some areas, you end up with something like 200 millimetres of change.

“So you’d end up reconstructing essentially entirety of the track from the ground up, including all of the run-off areas, all the barrier lines, all of the service road. So it goes from being a reprofiling project to a complete full rebuild of the entire sequence which obviously is not practical.”

Nonetheless he’s hopeful the revisions will make for a smoother, quicker sequence. “The negative cross-fall is there but what we’ve done, and we worked quite closely Formula 1 on this, by opening up the radius, we feel that we’ve got now a much more flowing sequence.

“Having driven this myself, albeit at low speed, 13 and 14 feels like a long left-hander. It’s almost like a double-apex single corner. You really flow, drive kerb to kerb and we’ve eliminated that stop-start characteristic of the previous layout.”

Faster laps, better racing?

While the changes have been limited to just three areas of the track, they are sufficiently ambitious that over half of the circuit’s turns have been altered. The rest of the layout has been largely untouched and the original asphalt remains.

The corner count has reduced from 21 to 16 and the lap length has shortened. As a result the race distance will increase from 55 laps to 58. Lap times should become much quicker too, falling by around 10 to 15 seconds.

But whether the alterations have had the desired effect of encouraging better racing is something we won’t be able to judge until the cars hit the track for the race which is likely to decide this year’s world championship.

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