Yas Marina track: Abu Dhabi's real-life Formula One circuit

There is a moment, easily identifiable, when this all starts to feel very real. Until then it could all just be make-believe, a kids' game of dress-ups, a bit of fun to tell your friends. The racing suit, the helmet, the gloves: they're just a costume, an affectation.

And then, suddenly, they're not. Suddenly you're lowering yourself into a car that looks very much like a Formula One machine. You're squeezing into the cockpit, raising your arms to ease your shoulders into place like you've seen F1 drivers do so many times on television. You're breathing heavily as an attendant locks the steering wheel into place, closes the visor of your helmet, points at the ignition and gives you the signal.

This is happening. This is real.

The venue is the Yas Marina track, a real-life Formula One circuit in Abu Dhabi. Lewis Hamilton races here. Daniel Ricciardo roars around this track.

The car is an F3000, a vehicle that looks and sounds very much like an F1 racer, only with slightly less menace: its top speed is 275km/h; an F1 hits in excess of 350km/h. Still, that's more than enough.

And the driver? Me. My only qualification for this experience is a regular driver's licence, and my attendance at a half-hour safety briefing a few moments earlier. And it had all seemed pretty simple up in that room overlooking the track, learning how to use the car's push-button starter, figuring out when to brake and when to throw the car into a turn, memorising the signals we might see on the track, remembering not to overtake, to stay behind the leader.

It seemed fairly straightforward, even for a guy whose chosen mode of transport back home is a 125cc Vespa scooter. How hard could it be? Press the accelerator to go faster; hit the brake to slow down; change gear using the paddle shifters on the steering wheel; drive as fast as you dare.

Turns out that's all fine until you're sitting in the cockpit of that car, sweating bullets, tapping the accelerator and hearing the roar of the engine just behind your seat, watching for the signal to go, waiting to tear out of pit lane and scream through the first corner.

The lead car pulls out. The car in front of me starts to roll. I get the signal: it's go time. This is it. I gently ease down on the accelerator, pull up on the clutch, and … the engine stalls.

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"More revs!" the guy yells at me as I shamefacedly restart the car. "Give it more gas!"

It's glaringly obvious that I'm not the sort of car nut this experience usually attracts. Yas 3000 is designed to take serious motor-racing fans as close as they can to being an F1 driver. The track is the real deal. The cars are very close. It's a serious thrill for anyone who's grown up watching these cars on TV.

And, eventually, it's a serious thrill for me. On my second go I get the car rolling, I exit pit lane and stomp on the accelerator and all of a sudden I'm launched forward at tremendous speed, straight into a 90-degree corner, then immediately into a tight S-bend.

I'm gripping the wheel with knuckles pale, concentrating on the track with all my being. I'm flicking through the gears with my fingertips, hoping to find the right one. I'm marvelling at how close the car is to the track's surface, how its tyres grip like magnets, how it shoots through corners at incredible pace. I'm keeping an eye on the lights on the steering wheel that show when I'm red-lining. I'm seeing grandstands whip by in my peripheral vision. I'm flying.

And, I'm being overtaken. It turns out that if you're slower than everyone else doing the Yas 3000 experience, the lead car will pull you to the side and allow the other, faster cars to go through. And that's what's happening to me right now.

I felt like I was roaring along, like I was pushing this car to its very limits – but it turns out I might as well have been riding my Vespa.

The writer was a guest of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/abudhabi

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FLY

Etihad Airways has twice-daily direct flights from both Sydney and Melbourne to Abu Dhabi. For bookings, see www.etihad.com 

STAY

The Yas Viceroy Hotel is ideally located right next to the Yas Marina racetrack and has spacious, modern rooms. See www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com 

DRIVE

The Formula Yas 3000 Drive is open to anyone with a current driver's licence, and includes a half-hour safety briefing, and 20 minutes on the F1 circuit. The experience costs AED1840 ($665). See www.yasmarinacircuit.com 

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