How Yas Marina Circuit has been redeveloped to test F1 drivers more


Here is how the redevelopment of the Yas Marina Circuit came about


The new layout aims to allow drivers to follow one another more easily than before

Yas Marina Circuit

It could very well be the track that hosts the 2021 F1 championship decider between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi has, up to now, failed to provide a thrilling race.

The 2016 decider between Nico Rosberg and Hamilton was about as close to a good race as things got but that was only because the latter was able to use the final sector’s lack of overtaking opportunities to back his team-mate into trouble behind.

There will hopefully be no repeat of that this season if Verstappen and Hamilton head into the final round with a title at stake. Work at Yas Marina is nearing completion ahead of the December race, but what has actually been done to change a track hardly known for overtaking into one that hopes to stage a thriller?

Mark Hughes, Managing director of Mrk1 Consulting and the company tasked with transforming Yas Marina ahead of Formula 1’s 2021 finale, talks us through the process of turning a sophisticated venue into a racing circuit to match the surrounding facilities.

“They [Yas Marina Circuit] approached us in February this year to see if we could help them make the concept they’ve been discussing with Formula 1 reality.

“It’s got all of the ingredients except the racing. It’s got the amazing architecture, it’s got the marina, the sunset, the concerts, there’s good attendance, it’s got wonderful hospitality. The culture is amazing, the fan zones are really good but the venue was often criticised because of the racing.

“Documentation was jointly prepared between Formula 1, and Yas Marina Circuit. Ross Brawn’s team had run some simulations. Based on the data that they had, they came up with some ideas of some changes to make which are, by and large, what we’ve now done.”

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Formula 1 has been employing data analysis and AI simulation into a lot of the decisions it is making with regards to its future, specifically around circuit design. The new Jeddah circuit, Vietnam’s now defunct street circuit and now Abu Dhabi have been some of the first to make use of F1’s findings.

Those changes include the reworking of several corners and the re-profiling of entries and exits in order to facilitate better racing by allowing cars to follow one another according to the simulations run by F1.

The old Turns 7, 11-14, 18, 19 and 20 have each been altered for the 2021 edition, though that has been far from a straightforward process, especially with the changes in the final sector. That section of track travels below the W Hotel and while it makes for a stunning visual on television, provides a sizeable headache for the redevelopment team.

“With the hotel, the stuff you can see is actually not such a problem. It’s the underground gas mains, high voltage power cables and drainage. Tying into those things is more of a challenge. We had the original drawings from the original construction, we had some data from surveyors and knew what we were working with, but in reality until you start to excavate, there are always surprises.

“For example, we knew there was a high voltage cable for the marina that went underneath the south part of the track but it wasn’t as deep underground as everyone assumed it would be. So suddenly, the knock on effect of that is that you don’t have the depth for the paving, so you then have to raise the racing surface up slightly to accommodate the changing circumstances underneath.”

There are specific challenges resulting from working on a circuit in the Middle East. Yas Marina has several unique aspects that makes reworking sections of track a potential difficulty. Lighting systems, drainage, kerb designs and barrier types all have to be taken into consideration before any work can go ahead.


The new Turn 5 eliminates the first chicane in front of the grandstands

Yas Marina Circuit


A new banked corner replaces the old Turns 11, 12 and 13 chicane

Ensuring that the new changes also don’t alter the circuit in the eyes of the FIA and its safety standards is a lot of work. When Motor Sport spoke with Mrk1 and Yas Marina, FIA Race Director Michael Masi had visited the circuit on the same day to receive an update on the ongoing work and feed back to all parties his thoughts on the project.

“We look at overlaying the changes that we want to make onto the existing design to work out where everything has to tie in, and some of the challenges for example are maintaining the infrastructure that already exists at Yas Marina Circuit.

“A lot of people don’t realise it has a very specific drainage system, which is a Hauraton HICAP drainage system [high capacity drains to funnel rainwater away]. It has things like Techpro barriers, it doesn’t have tyre barriers which affect the size of the runoff area where the barriers go. So we overlay the design that we would like to create onto the existing track layout, and work out where everything has to tie in and connect.

“It’s not a case of just creating a straight line and say ‘your new asphalt will start there and end there’. You then have to look at kerbs, how do they tie in. We have to remember that the FIA safety regulations and the way that they operate now are different to when the track was built in 2009. So the FIA have gradually been introducing more aggressive kerbs, for example, to try and manage track limits, so we’ve then had to look at the kerbs that are there. Are they the right kind of kerb or can we extend them? Where do they start and finish? Can we tie into the drainage that we have?

“Also things like materials. The methodology around creating asphalt is a complex science. We work with a company called Hart who were involved in the original construction in 2009. They’re an asphalt specialist and have worked to make sure the racing surface matches what already exists, so that there’s no differentiation in grip.

“The other challenge that we have, was that we were approached in at the end of February and the goal was to make the changes for this year. So that’s a lot of work, you’ve got to create the drawings, you have to submit them to the FIA for their approval and that process takes time.

“People are taking a bit of a chance and trying to get past one another, it’s going to separate the men from the boys, you’re going to see who’s brave.”

“With that, you’re then waiting for the feedback. Yas Marina Circuit themselves also had to go through a tender process to find their contractors and their suppliers to get the materials, and some of the materials are not available in the Middle East. The drainage, barriers, the track lighting system; a lot of that has to be shipped in for this project, which meant that the clock was ticking and we’ve got a finite deadline and we had to work backwards from that and try and make everything happen in time.”

While the work is reaching its final stages, teams have already been preparing as much as possible for the new Yas sections. Several teams have been in touch with the circuit about receiving data and information about the new sections of track, though not every team on the 2021 grid has followed suit.

“I know that the F1 teams themselves are talking to one of the directors of Yas Marina Circuit about getting the current circuit plan so they can feed that into their simulators.

“I know that two of the teams have also reached out about the work that has been going on.”

Those new sections aim to deliver a more exciting race by making it easier for cars to follow one another. The radius of several corners has been opened up while the new Turn 9 promises to be an action zone with the removal of the fiddly three-part chicane in favour of a Mugello-style banked corner leading to the opened up sections beneath the hotel at the end of the lap.

“So Turn 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 were 90-degree corners. They were very technical and quite slow. That’s all come out now and we’ve got this beautiful sweeping corner with 5% camber. It’s wide enough potentially for three cars to be in there, side by side if they were really brave enough. It’s fantastically quick, it’s at the end of the DRS zone so I think if people are taking a bit of a chance and trying to get past one another, it’s going to separate the men from the boys, you’re going to see who’s brave.

“It’s phenomenally fast, will give great grip because of the camber as well. And I think it will be a beautiful section of track. It could keep him [Michael Masi] on his toes in Race Control if he’s got cars side by side through a very fast corner.

“We are putting in relatively aggressive double width kerbs, which have started to appear on circuits, the drivers won’t want to drive on them. If you go beyond those then you’re outside of track limits anyway. I think it’s a combination is 50mm kerb followed by 75mm kerb. The whole point of those kerbs is that it deters drivers from running wide in those corners and keeping them within track limits. They should achieve that.”

The changes will hopefully combine to create a race that is more exciting than past editions. The alterations also mean that the lap has been shortened and will therefore extend the number of laps on Sunday.

Otherwise, the facility remains unchanged as it already was one of the most sophisticated and well-equipped circuits on the Formula 1 calendar.

Hughes says that each of the changes have been made with presenting a greater challenge to the drivers in mind. The faster corner speeds will make the lap more of a physical challenge while a defensive mindset will be required around parts of the track it wasn’t necessary to in the past.

“We believe lap time will be roughly 10 seconds quicker, and the track is shorter, so I think we’ve gone from 5.5 to 5.2km, which also means that there should be an extra three laps of racing as well which is great for the fans. The fans in the grandstands will see the cars more often. I think that’s really positive. I think some of the views from the grandstands are going to be fabulous.

“The track is now wider than it was at Turn 5, hopefully you’ll see some brave driving going on there. You’ll see drivers trying to think about how they defend going into that corner, because they wouldn’t necessarily want to lose out on the next section with the DRS and you’ve always got the reverse at Turn 9 where you’ve got the DRS, followed by a new wider corner. So I think the drivers will enjoy it.

“I think that overall, the general feedback from the public about what we’re doing so far has been very positive. The feedback from the FIA has also been positive and I’m really excited about December.

“You’ve got all these people watching Formula 1 live and you want them to enjoy that. You don’t want them to come away thinking that was that was boring. So if you’ve got the budget and you’ve got that ability, why wouldn’t you tweak the track?”