In 2022, European cruise line MSC Cruises signed a global partnership with Formula 1 Racing, more commonly known as F1.
While the two might seem vastly different, this initiative was borne out of both company’s shared passion for technological advancement and sustainability. Both entities share ambitious goals - F1 is targeting net zero carbon by 2030 by using cleaner fuels, reducing emissions, and developing next-gen technology, while MSC and the entire cruise industry are striving towards net zero by 2050, employing the same approaches.
Being an international cruise line with a large global fleet, MSC also helps boost F1 attendance by offering additional accommodation capacity and a premium way for race fans to enjoy their experience at specific race venues. It certainly helps that F1 is a sport that draws fans internationally, while MSC also has a global cruise audience.
As such, the 6,334-passenger MSC Virtuosa was docked at the Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal from November 23rd to 27th to host the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final F1 race of the 2023 season. Cruise Critic had the chance to participate in this inaugural event, where the ship served as a floating hotel during the race weekend.
Simply put, MSC looked after all the logistics of attending a Grand Prix race so that fans could enjoy the event hassle-free. For the Grand Prix race taking place at the Yas Marina Circuit, MSC offered several package options at different price points to suit all budgets. Guests who already had race tickets could book the “Cabin Only” package, where they can choose an inside, oceanview, or balcony cabin onboard MSC Virtuosa, with daily transfers between the ship and the race circuit, Wi-Fi, and a half-board meal plan.
Those needing tickets could book the “Cabin + F1 Ticket” that also included a three-day Grand Prix ticket with grandstand seating. For serious race fans wanting an upgraded experience, two premium packages were also available. The “Cabin + F1 Experience” included premium grandstand seats and complimentary access to an on-site, air-conditioned hospitality suite with unlimited hot meals and non-alcoholic beverages. It also included a guided track tour, an exclusive pit lane walk, and a photo op with the championship trophy.
The most expensive “Cabin + F1 Premium Hospitality” package came with a seat in the exclusive Turn 1 Suite or Paddock Club, and shipboard accommodations in an MSC Yacht Club suite that included butler service, access to the thermal suite in the spa, specialty dining, and a premium beverage package.
We loved that all packages included accommodations, transportation, and meals, so guests didn’t have to worry about all the little things. But the true benefit of booking a package was the undeniable value. The “Cabin + F1 Ticket” package was selling as low as $500 per person - which was a steal, considering race tickets or even one night’s hotel ashore alone would have cost more than that.
The three-day Grand Prix ticket gave guests full access to the circuit, and the atmosphere at the track was indeed lively. There were numerous fan zones with live music, food and beverage, lounging areas, race simulators, fun and games for the entire family, and appearances by F1 team principals and drivers.
Each eventful day ended with a free concert available to all ticket holders, with big-name artists Chris Brown performing on Friday, Shania Twain on Saturday, and the Foo Fighters closing the event on Sunday. We were too tired to attend, but everyone we spoke to, said the performances were fantastic.
Daily breakfast and dinner were part of the half-board meal plan onboard MSC Virtuosa, even for the “Cabin Only” arrangement. Guests can choose to take their meals in the dining room or the buffet. And to accommodate the busy race schedule, both venues stayed open late (10:30 pm for the dining room and midnight for the buffet), which was great thinking on MSC’s part. We were especially impressed with the selection and food quality in the buffet and ate there most of the time due to the timing of the race events. There were plenty of choices ranging from salads, soups, a variety of hot and cold entrées, pizzas, pasta, fresh fruit, and desserts.
Since MSC expected guests to be at the track during the day, lunch was not included in the pricing packages but was available for purchase to those who wanted it. We felt that was fair, and we ourselves were never on the ship during lunchtime. Four specialty restaurants – a steakhouse, Japanese, Mexican, and Vietnamese/French fusion - were also open for lunch and dinner to offer guests additional dining options at an extra charge, which was nice to have as a treat.
During their stay onboard MSC Virtuosa, guests could also take advantage of the ship’s amenities, including the pools, whirlpools, sundeck, and deck chairs. Since the temperature was in the high 80s daily, the pools and sun decks were busy. All bars and lounges were open, and guests could also book spa treatments (we observed steady business there), take in the nightly entertainment, attend fitness classes, and use the kids’ club.
Amenities operated just like a standard MSC cruise – the fitness classes, kids’ club, and shows in the main theatre were included, specialty shows (there were two Cirque-style performances), spa treatments, and alcoholic beverages cost extra. The complimentary theater shows were popular, but not so much for the paid ones – there were less than 50 people at the specialty show we attended. With everyone being at the circuit daily, the venues only got busy outside of the racing events. But nonetheless, it was great to have these options to offer guests during downtime and in the evenings after returning from the circuit.
Complimentary shuttle buses ran daily between the ship and the Yas Marina circuit. We were thoroughly impressed with how well the transfers were organized, with plenty of MSC staff to direct guests in the right direction. Buses left immediately when full, and upon arrival at the circuit, staff holding MSC signs escorted guests to the entrance of the circuit. Shuttle buses also ran late into the night to accommodate those who stayed behind to enjoy the evening festivities and concerts.
The excitement of Formula 1 was in the air from the moment we arrived at the cruise terminal. The check-in and embarkation area was decorated with F1 banners, signage, and photo backdrops. Onboard, MSC Virtuosa was fully dressed in the F1 theme, including a full-sized MSC-logoed F1 race car on the sun deck, numerous F1 banners and flags throughout, and displays of F1 driver-autographed memorabilia. Ferrari sparkling wine – the official F1 toast at every podium celebration – was available for purchase by the glass or bottle. Additional activities included a daily F1 quiz, a Formula Racer simulator challenge where guests can tackle the Abu Dhabi circuit to vie for the fastest lap, and F1-themed dance parties.
The onboard décor and lively atmosphere certainly elevated our experience. Since everyone shared a common interest -- similar to a theme cruise -- it was easy to strike up conversations with fellow guests and share our mutual excitement and predictions for the race. Although guests came from all corners of the world, we were all like-minded travelers coming together for one reason, and that was to enjoy the final F1 race of the season. The excitement throughout the four days was certainly palpable.
Several Q&A sessions were scheduled onboard throughout the race weekend, featuring active and retired F1 personalities. Special guests included former F1 driver Jean Alesi, F1 Academy up-and-coming driver Bianca Bustamante, retired F1 Team Co-ordinator Jo Ramirez, F1’s Chief Technical Officer Pat Symonds, F1 Group CEO Stefano Domenicali, former F1 Champion Mika “The Flying Finn” Häkkinen, and former F1 and Le Mans driver Marc Gené.
Hearing these F1 legends share personal stories from their careers – and many posed for photos with guests afterward – was a huge highlight and made the F1 experience extra special onboard MSC Virtuosa, surpassing what you’d get with a standard hotel stay.
The F1 fans staying onboard MSC Virtuosa spanned all age groups and demographics, from young families to couples, seniors, and groups of friends. While some may have cruised on MSC or other brands, many may have not. As the exclusive Official Cruise Partner of F1, MSC can leverage the F1 fanbase and introduce the idea of cruising to a new audience. Short of sailing, having MSC Virtuosa as a hotel during the race was a great way to show non-cruisers what it’s like to vacation on a ship. After experiencing the dining, entertainment, and activity offerings, MSC hopes they might just consider going on a real cruise.
With such a well-organized event and all the pluses that came with the race packages, we were hard-pressed to find any downside with the MSC F1 program. The only inconvenience we encountered was the amount of time it took to reach the circuit from the ship. With the Yas Marina Circuit located 20 miles from the Abu Dhabi cruise terminal, the travel time was nearly 40 minutes and sometimes up to one hour each way.
The shuttle buses had to travel in the slow lane on the highway while taxis and ride-sharing vehicles flew by (and we did see many guests take taxis from the pier instead of the shuttle for this reason, but it was at their own expense). The buses also only dropped off and picked up from one location, so guests whose seats were further away had to take another shuttle operated by the circuit to reach their grandstand. But this really was beyond anyone’s control and was not a huge deal, everyone quickly learned to allow for extra time to reach the track.
We’re delighted to hear that MSC has extended its global partnership with F1 to the end of 2026, however, it has not confirmed any F1 packages for the 2024 season at the time of this writing (although the line has added its name to two 2024 F1 races: the MSC Cruises Japanese Grand Prix, running April 5-7, and the MSC Cruises Gran Premio dell’Emilia Romagna 2024 that will be held May 17-19.)
While other cruise lines offer F1-themed cruises where the ship actually sails to different ports of call in addition to being at the race, it remains to be seen whether MSC will also offer sailings or remain only as a floating hotel concept.
With several 2024 races taking place in port destinations such as Monaco, Melbourne, Singapore, Doha, Barcelona, Miami, and, of course - Abu Dhabi, we hope there will be more opportunities for race fans to enjoy a hassle-free and value-filled F1 Grand Prix experience onboard a MSC ship down the road.