Photo: James Gavin

What Its Like to Stay on a Luxe Cruise Ship During the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix

by Katie Scott Aiton Dec 14, 2023

My father is a gearhead. Growing up, we’d travel to famous racetracks in the UK and Monaco to watch legendary drivers like Senna, Mansell, Coulthard, and Schumacher do what they do best.

Decades later, due to the cruelty of Parkinson’s, my dad can no longer travel. The hum of Formula 1 races still vibrate the house on race weekends, but it’s up to me to carry the mantle and attend races in person. The privilege of youth, however, sheltered me from understanding how complex it was to plan a weekend trip to an overseas race. Aside from the cost, finding decent and available accommodations close to the circuit and organizing transportation takes a lot of leg work.

And prices are high and availability limited, since around 480,000 fans attend the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, one of the biggest and most over-the-top races of the year. That’s a ridiculous amount of people to feed, accommodate, and entertain.

MSC F1 experience on the track

The writer on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix track, one of many perks included in the MSC F1 package. Photo: James Gavin

Sorely needed is a middleman. And that’s where MSC Cruises come in, which announced a global partnership with F1 was announced in June 2022. Following that, MSC announced an unparalleled package for the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The package includes your choice of tickets to the race, plus accommodations aboard the MSC Virtuosa, along with F1 events and viewing parties, meals, and ongoing transportation between the racetrack and the ship. It’s like an F1 themed cruise, except it stays in port the whole time.

Last month, I was fortunate to experience the Abu Dhabi F1 and enjoy the luxury accommodation and the outstanding hospitality aboard — and it was a far cry from camping in the mud at Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix.

Here’s what to expect if you book an MSC Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix package for 2024, happening December 5-8, 2024. (Sales should open in early 2024).

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MSC Virtuosa, one of the largest in MSC’s fleet. Photo: Bernard Biger/Chantiers de l’Atlantique.

MSC Virtuosa, one of the largest in MSC’s fleet, was berthed at Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal at Zayed Port for the race weekend. The port is around 30 to 40 minutes via shuttle from the Yas Marina Circuit, making a stay on the cruise ship ideal for international travelers coming in for the race.

But Virtuosa is anything but a floating hotel. MSC Cruises’ ticket packages include accommodations, food and drink, transfers to the circuit, exclusive behind-the-scenes experiences at the track, legendary driver appearances, F1-themed activities, and more. Here’s what you can expect from an unforgettable race weekend at the Abu Dhabi F1 with MSC Cruises.

The ship is F1 themed from top to bottom

The galleria on the F1-themed MSC Virtuosa, where you’ll find speciality restaurants and shopping. Photo: Anthony Devlin

MSC Virtuosa bills itself as the perfect base for an F1 weekend, and it pulls out all the stops to make that true.

Throughout the ship, you’ll see nods to the sport with checked flag decor, framed suits and boots from famous drivers, and an impressive chocolate sculpture of an F1 racing car. All the guests I encountered were there for the race, and the atmosphere was electric. The weekend is also jam-packed with F1-themed activities on board the ship. You can challenge your skills on the thrilling Formula Racer Simulator Challenge, attend Q and As with racing legends, test your racing knowledge at trivia nights, and — if you have some energy left after a day at the track — dance the night away at various parties.

MSC F1 party at the Atmosphere Pool

MSC F1 party on the Atmosphere Pool Deck. Photo: James Gavin

Everything from booking transfers to the events schedule is available on the MSC for Me app and on digital screens throughout the ship. There’s also a very handy F1 Ticket Support Desk on board, where well-informed and friendly staff can answer any questions relating to the weekend or tickets packages.

Person doing MSC Formula Racer Simulator Challenge

MSC Formula Racer Simulator Challenge. Photo: Katie Scott Aiton

If you’re inspired after a day at the track, you can try your skills on the full-sized F1 simulator. Four screens sit above the F1 car replica, and once strapped in, you’ll be in control as the car moves with your instruction around the track in a virtual F1 race. The drivers before me made it look easy. But my body shook as I slammed into the barrier at full speed on the first turn. After a lap, I was addicted. Over the weekend, the leaderboard listed the fastest passengers. Sadly I didn’t make the cut. So I hung up my driving boots, returned to the track, and left it to the professionals.

The on-board food is better than at the track

The F1 package dining options remain the same as what you’d expect from a standard cruise on MSC Virtuosa. Why change something that works?

Kaito Teppanyaki on MSC Virtuosa

Kaito Teppanyaki, one of the best shows aboard MSC Virtuosa. Photo: James Gavin

Your restaurant options depend on what package you book. The specialty restaurants I visited (Butcher’s Cut, Hola! Tacos & Cantina, and Kaito Teppanyaki) were exceptional. My fillet steak was cooked to perfection, the house guacamole was creamy with enough of a punch of citrus and chili, and the post-track show at the teppanyaki grill was hilarious and delicious in equal measure.

As is often the case with other major sporting events, eating and drinking at the racetrack can get expensive. I found that having a pre-paid dining package with MSC made it easy to avoid the overhead of buying food and drinks and the track, since I knew I could come back to the ship to enjoy a tasty dinner on the ship at my leisure.

Rob the robotic bartender on MSC F1 experience

Rob the robotic bartender making cocktails after returning from the track. Photo: James Gavin

My ticket included the “Premium Extra Package” for beverages, which allowed me to order any drink up to $16. Only once did I purchase a drink outside of that, due to a charming robotic bartender called Rob. He’s the first-ever humanoid-robotic bartender at sea, and mans the bar at the MSC Starship Club.

Guests get VIP access to F1 drivers and celebrities in the sport

Photo: James Gavin  Q+A with the legend, Mika Hakkinen.
Photo: James Gavin  Jean Alessi takes the stage on the Atmosphere Pool Deck.
Photo: James Gavin  An evening with Jean Alessi.

One of the highlights of the F1-themed events onboard was the scheduled question and answer sessions with the drivers. Formula 1 commentator and presenter David “Crofty” Croft kicked off proceedings with an evening with 1995 Canadian Grand Prix winner Jean Alesi, who won on his birthday. As a fan, it was extra-special to hear him open up to guests and speak candidly about his career, reminiscing about driving on the Ferrari team, his incredible career, the “fragility” of F1 cars in the early days, and his friends in the sport.

He spoke with elegance about the development of racing and laughed with Crofty about “getting the hump” with sponsoring from cigarette brand Camel. Afterward, I was able to shake their hands and get an autograph (and a prized selfie).

We also had the pleasure of meeting one of my father’s heroes, Mika Häkkinen. He was interviewed by celebrity sports presenter Immy Barcley, who asked him to pick the most memorable moment of his career. He mentioned winning the World Championship twice, and talked about all the moving parts and complexities of being in an event like the e Monaco Grand Prix.

When speaking about his teammates, Häkkinen pointed to where I was sitting. As I turned, I realized I was shoulder-to-shoulder with Jo Ramírez, the former coordinator for the McLaren Formula One team. After personally thanking Häkkinen for his time, I returned to my cabin to FaceTime my father, who was almost as excited as I was from just hearing about how close I got to his favorite drivers.

Screen by pool of interview with Bianca Bustamante on MSC F1 experience

Excellent Q+A with up and coming driver Bianca Bustamante by the pool.Photo: Katie Scott Aiton

Most of the Q and A sessions were held on the Atmosphere Pool Deck. That meant I could take a quick swim while listening to some of the most exciting athletes in the sport. That included rising star and Filipina F1 Academy driver Bianca Bustamante who, at just 18 years old, is on the McLaren Driver Development Programme. I loved being able to hear stories direct from these young voices in the sport, especially as she spoke about the challenges of breaking into the industry as a female driver.

For those who prefer to relax by the pool and go to the track later in the day, MSC streams the event on the humungous screen above the pool, also viewable from the loungers, pool beds, and outdoor seating areas.

The MSC F1 experience at the racetrack was smooth and luxurious

The complimentary shuttle services runs between the MSC Virtuosa and the Yas Marina Circuit on an on-going basis throughout the weekend. It starts at 9 AM and runs until 10 PM on Thursday and until 2 AM on Friday and Saturday. The shuttles departed every 30 minutes and were easy to book via the app, so I didn’t need to stand in line ahead of time to hop for a seat.

Sunset at YAS CIRCUIT hosting MSC F1

Sunset at Yas Marina Circuit. Photo: Katie Scott Aiton

My Yas Marina Circuit tickets were on the F1 app, which also has a venue map, dining information, and guides to the various seating areas and access points.

Believe me, you’ll need the app. The race circuit is both monstrous and magnificent. Throngs of fans are constantly wandering between merch stands, beer gardens, food trucks, and live music performances, and you’ll need to dart through the crowds to find your gate. Depending on you package, you’ll probably have access to an air-conditioned suite — the perfect place to take in the track’s layout and the roar of the engines with a cold beverage in hand.

View from West Grandstand YAS Suite Seating

View from West Grandstand YAS Suite Seating. Photo: James Gavin

From the West Grandstand Yas Suite, we had exceptional views of Turns 6 and 7. We also had an unobstructed view of the long straight in the first sector. The turns are tight and narrow, making our seats an ideal place for watching as cars tried to overtake one another. We also had panoramic view of the circuit.

Photo: James Gavin Flatbed truck tour of the circuit.
Photo: James Gavin
Photo: James Gavin

Following the practice sessions, there’s an opportunity to see the track up-close — one of many activities offered to MSC cruise weekend guests. With our F1 Experiences wristbands, we were whisked through a labyrinth of tunnels to come up for air at the edge of the pit lane. From there, we boarded a flatbed truck for a drivers-eye tour of the circuit, along with commentary on how the day’s events went and the track layout.

Photo: James Gavin  Aston Martin.
Photo: James Gavin Ferrari.
Photo: James Gavin MercedesTeam Garage.

After that, we were able to enter the pits, witnessing pit crews servicing the cars, blasting out music as they worked. Red Bull’s technicians and mechanics worked in unison while singing along to rock music, making some of the most technically demanding and stressful jobs in the world look effortless and fun.

The Mercedes crew were less of a flurry, ignoring the camera flashes as they honed their machines with precision. The walk took us down the length of the pits, just steps away from the team garages. The experiences was rounded out with the opportunity to take a photo on the winner’s podium.

It was a fitting finish to a once-in-a-lifetime, behind-the-scenes look at the Yas Marina Circuit, the cars, the drivers, and teams who make Formula 1, in this writer’s opinion, the most exhilarating motorsport in the world.

I picked a mid-level package, but it caters to all budgets

Atmosphere Pool with MSC F1 car

The Atmosphere Pool with the MSC F1 car. Photo: Anthony Devlin

MSC offers enough customization options to cater to most budgets and needs. Travelers with deep pockets can book elegant cabins with access to the opulent Yacht Club, while the various dining packages run the gamut in terms of cost, starting around $79 per day.

Ticket packages for the three-day experience (with four nights of lodging on board) start at just $1,299 per person, going all the way up to $31,000 for all the bells and whistles. All include your room on the moored MSC Virtuosa, F1 programming and features, daily transportation to and from the Yas Marina Circuit, and trackside entertainment while you’re there.

I booked the West Yas Suite package, which included a seat in the West Grandstand Yas Suite, unlimited non-alcoholic beverages (and a paid bar), hot food and snacks, trackside activities including a walk through the pit lane, a driving tour of the circuit, an option for a photo souvenir, and access to a cocktail reception with Jean Alesi on the Virtuosa.

Premium North Straight

  • Padded seating at Premium North Grandstand, with views of the Turn 5 hairpin and the long straight.
  • VIP entrance at the track
  • A track tour, pit lane walk, photo on the winner’s podium, and reception on the MSC Virtuosa.

North Yas Suite

  • Seat in the covered North Grandstand Yas Suite.
  • Views of the Turn 5 hairpin.
  • A track tour, pit lane walk, photo on the winner’s podium, and reception on the MSC Virtuosa.

Turn 1 Suite by F1 Experiences 3-Days

  • Suite access with views of Main Straight and Turn 1.
  • VIP hospitality access
  • Tour of the F1 Paddock

Paddock Club 3-Days

  • Access to the Paddock Club above the team garages on the Main Straight
  • Access to gourmet hospitality lounges with open bars
  • Daily pit lane walks
  • Access to F1 insider appearances

Legend 3-Days

  • Access to the Paddock Club above the team garages on the Main Straight.
  • Access to gourmet hospitality lounges with open bars
  • Daily pit lane walks.
  • Access to F1 insider appearances
  • Full-day access to the F1 Paddock
  • VIP pass to the podium ceremony

Tickets for the packages for 2024 aren’t yet on sale, but should be available (likely at similar pricing to 2023) starting sometime in the first quarter of 2024. You can sign up for alerts (and eventually buy packages) at this link.

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