It’s twilight as we sit in the stands at Yas Marina Circuit and watch the previous group speed around the track. Despite the roaring engines, it’s surprisingly peaceful and pretty with the twinkling lights of the Yas Viceroy and blazing sunset sky.
This, however, does nothing to calm our nerves, which have been building all day. We have barely any clue what to expect, we just know that we will be driving fast. Really fast. We hand over our driving licences and sign all the necessary disclaimer and insurance forms before being shown over to a rail of padded jumpsuits.
Next comes the brief. Abas, our instructor, whizzes through the car’s operation, including how to change gears, rules of the track and safety information. You should have prior knowledge of how to operate a manual gearbox before signing up to this experience. Although the Formula Yas 3000 car isn’t operated in exactly the same way as a standard manual car, the briefing won’t be in-depth enough for those with no experience at all, and you’ll be getting a feel for the track in a little manual Renault Clio first.
You pair up for this, and each person drives two loops while Abas gives a quick succession of instructions on gear changes and how to take turns via radio. Again, those with absolutely no experience driving a manual car will struggle.
We are split into two groups for the main event (each group gets around 20 minutes track time) and the butterflies return as we wait restlessly for our turn in group two.
For this experience you’ll be hopping into a cosy single-seater car with a 3000cc V6 engine. The Formula Yas 3000 car is similar to those used by young drivers on the path to Formula One. F1 world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel cut their teeth in cars like this one. It’s a super snug fit, and you’re tucked into your seat, low to the ground, and securely strapped in. It’s a very claustrophobic feeling, there’s barely an inch of space to move around, and the balaclava and heavy helmet are stifling in the heat (our experience was on an August evening). These are no go-karts. They are powerful vehicles, tricky to drive at high speeds and racing them requires lots of experience. The mirrors, for example, are tiny, and we struggle to understand how anyone could possibly have adequate visibility from them. Our heart is thumping as we wait to begin, and when we hear the first car’s engine roar to life our stomach starts to somersault. This is it.
It’s a juddery start for some with a stiffer clutch pedal than many will be used to, and several people stall a few times before they manage to get going, but as soon as we set off our nerves melt away and pure excitement takes over. We settle into fourth gear and take the first lap slowly.
No-one wants their experienced ruined by an adrenaline junkie who passed their test last week and think they’re the next Niki Lauda. Until you’ve really got the hang of driving these cars, being let loose on the track to race could be disastrous.
Thankfully, everything is exceptionally organised. During the briefing, we are warned to remain in single file at all times, and to follow the instructor – who will be driving at the front. After a preliminary lap of the track, all drivers are brought back into the pit and split into groups based on speed. Instructors communicate with each other via radio to do this, and each group is given their own instructor to follow.
Groups are shuffled several times, if needed, so that all drivers end up in the correct group and are able to drive at their preferred speed without hindering anyone else. It also means that faster drivers can lap other drivers easily. For example, if your group is about to be lapped, your instructor will lead you safely over to the right hand side of the track and slow down to allow the other group to pass before continuing.
Once all the shuffling has been done, you can really get into the groove of driving, and it’s nothing short of exhilarating. Our speed increases with each lap as our confidence grows, especially as we soar down the straight stretch of track at breathtaking speed and successfully pull off some knuckle-clenching 90-degrees turns. We feel like we could do this for hours.
On our visit, the half of the course where the experience usually takes place was closed for maintenance, so we instead took to the more technically challenging tracks between the West Grandstand, Marina Grandstand, South Grandstand and Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel. It’s difficult to pick up speed – except for along one long, straight stretch – since most of the course snakes around tightly.
You’re more likely to be on the triangular section of track between the North Grandstand, West Grandstand and Main Grandstand. This half of Yas Marina Circuit is, on the whole, relatively smooth and mainly consists of long straights, leisurely curves and just a few tight turns.
It’s easier, which makes it ideal for beginners, and you’ll be able to reach higher speeds, so it’s equally ideal for thrill seekers.
We would do this experience ten times over. The best thing about it is that there’s no pressure to drive at a fast speed, you can take the track at whatever pace you feel comfortable with. Anyone and everyone (with a driving licence) would enjoy it; it’s an absolutely brilliant taste of what it’s like to drive a single-seater racing car, and it will certainly give you a new appreciation for the skill involved in competitive racing.
From Dhs1,600, experience only (insurance and a video of the experience are available at additional cost). www.yasmarinacircuit.com/en/experiences/driving-experiences (02 659 9800).
What else can you do?
If Formula Yas 3000 doesn’t sound like it’s for you – or you’re ready and raring to try something else – check out one of these other adrenaline-pumping experiences on offer at the circuit.
Learn to drift
Learn the art of oversteering during a two and a half hour session in a Toyota GT 86. The session will cover the basics and how to navigate the drift course, including skid plate training and drift and transition sessions.
Yas Drift Nights
If you’re already a drifting dab hand, you can bring your own car down and hit the track. Each driver is allowed onto the course individually for two minutes at a time, and the sessions last for four hours.
Dhs600 (participant), Dhs100 (passenger), Dhs50 (crew), Dhs30 (spectator).
Aston Martin GT4
Give sports car racing a go in an Aston Martin with a 4.7-litre V8 engine. You’ll sit with an instructor for this experience, who will guide you through complex turns and give you technical feedback at the end of the session. A good one for those serious about the sport and keen to learn more.
Chevrolet Camaro Drag Racing
Drive an automatic Chevrolet Camaro SS, fitted with a 400-horsepower 6.2-litre V8 engine. After observing your instructor, you’ll be in the driver seat and, after some guidance and assessment, you’ll be allowed to take to the track alone and have a briefing following each of the subsequent eight runs.
Hop into the passenger seat to experience the track in an AMG Mercedes GTS, CLS or E63. Great for those who want the thrill but don’t have a driving licence. Driving experiences in these cars are also available in the GTS, or try drag racing in the CLS or E63.