The grandstand at the Dubai Autodrome was eerily quiet. Apart from the occasional howl of race cars running trial laps and the wail of an alarm whenever a car swooped into the pits, the only other sound was the quiet chatter of five labourers taking a break from building the extra facilities that are mushrooming up around the main track. But it was only a day of preseason trial laps for drivers hoping for a few podium finishes in the Dubai Autodrome's current racing season.
When the 2008/09 racing season started on Oct 24, organisers were relieved that there was a slightly bigger crowd than five resting labourers, but they are still hoping that with an increased public profile, the crowds will continue to swell over the season. While the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which makes its big debut on Nov 15 next year, has already captured plenty of headlines, there is an established motor racing scene in Dubai with big plans for better public awareness for the new season.
This weekend is the Dubai Motorsport Festival and, following that, will be the Grand Racing Weekend, with FIA GT3, Speedcars and GP2 Asia over Dec 4-6. "The Autodrome has to become somewhere to be seen," says Phil Anson, the track's affable commentator. "There has been some great racing here, plenty happening, which is different to other tracks around the world where there can be big gaps between races and it gets boring."
Crowds in recent years have been disappointing at the Autodrome despite world class drivers, such as Johnny Herbert and Jacques Villeneuve, racing at the circuit. In a city where cars are serious status symbols, it is surprising that there have not been more petrolheads descending on the tracks during the annual race season, which runs until the end of April. This season, there are three categories of racing - touring cars, UAE Sportbike Championships and Gulf Radicals - all vying to capture the imagination of the public during winter.
More sponsorship dirhams, thanks to auto accessory retailer Yellow Hat and luxury company House of Portier, improved TV coverage and a campaign to increase public awareness of local drivers are all part of what Autodrome public relations manager Paul Velasco describes as "a new era" for motorsports in Dubai. Sultan Mahboubi, 16, is one of the Emirati drivers who could capture the imagination of motorsport fans.
Mahboubi started in kart racing and this year is his first season racing in Gulf Radicals. The low-bodied carbon fibre Radical cars emit a guttural buzz as they sweep around the track like Technicolor extraterrestrial insects. They have a bit more space than an F1 car - they can even take a passenger - and they're fitted with sequential gearboxes. On the first race day for the season, Mahboubi came in a respectable 11th out of 17 starters and seventh in his class. The winner was Canadian Bassam Kronfli who completed 14 laps of the 2.46km circuit in 14:44:577. Mahboubi's mentor, Keverne McShine, finished seventh overall. "I am just here to help him," says Trinidadian McShine, whose day job is an Emirates Airline pilot. "But Sultan has a big future in racing."
Mahboubi, still with braces on his teeth, is a delightful, softly spoken teenager who giggled and shook his head when asked if he was yet allowed to drive a car on public roads. Another Emirati driver, Humaid Al Masaood, is also competing the Gulf Radicals series. The Abu Dhabi-based driver possesses the easy charm and confidence of Lewis Hamilton at a post-podium finish press conference and he describes racing Radicals as "a hobby, albeit a very addictive hobby and a very nice one to have". He laughed uproariously at the suggestion that driving these brightly coloured machines is his day job. On the first race day for the season, he came in s16th after only completing eight laps, thus proving his point.
Barry Hope, the manager of GulfSport, owners of the Radical series, is pleased that a growing number of Emiratis are getting involved in motorsport but says that talented drivers have to be spotted at a very young age if they are to reach the pinnacle of motor racing, such as Formula One. Even Sultan Mahboubi may be "too old at 16" to have only just graduated from karts to Radicals. "They should be aged around eight or 10 when they get started in karts and get a feel for it," says Hope. "That's when we have to spot the talent."
Despite this, Hope is optimistic about the future of motorsport in the UAE, especially with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix making its debut next year and the Dubai racing season securing sponsorship. The UAE's first Grand Prix may not be in Dubai but it will certainly help foster interest in motor sport. "It'd be great to see an Emirati F1 driver competing in Abu Dhabi," says Hope. "As long as the money is spent on developing the talent."
The grid has been extended so that more cars than ever before can start in the tourers' races - with up to 40 cars on the grid for some races, there could be plenty of thrills and spills on such a crowded track and picking winners will be tough in the touring cars category. Porsches, Renaults, Corvettes, Evos, Lancers and Seats are among the cars that compete across different classes among the tourers.
In the first touring car race for the season, it was a closely fought battle for first place with German Karim Al-Azhari winning in his 911 GT2. Emirati driver Mohammed Al-Falasi, nicknamed Mr Nice Guy, came second, just 0.454 seconds behind in his Corvette. Al-Falasi shares Hope's optimism for the new season with bigger crowds. "I thank Dubai Autodrome and all concerned for setting a stage to take motorsport to a new level and wider audience this season," Al Falasi says. "The car is going well, we've done a lot of work on it."
On the test day, earlier in October, I was taken on a couple of laps of the track by Porsche 996 driver Henning Engal from Germany. Rowing through the six-speed manual gearbox, he blistered around the track, with walls and safety signs appearing incredibly close to the car at speeds that exceeded 200kph, the rev counter redlining for almost the entire lap. On the first race day for the season, he came in eighth.
In the Sportbike category, a three-way rivalry from last season was reignited in the first race. Britain's Rod Scott on a Yamaha, Saudi Arabia's Abul Aziz Bakr on a Kawasaki and India's Juzar Motiwala on a Honda came first, second and third. But in the second race, Bakr blazed in front to win ahead of Scott and Motiwala. Lurking self-consciously at the track on test day was a gaggle of glamorous grid girls. Their presence was further evidence that the new Dubai racing season is going to feel like a world-class event.
Such eye candy might not be to everyone's taste, but with money and glamour being two of the biggest selling points for motor sport worldwide, it's no real surprise that, even in the Middle East, the organisers feel the need to inject a dash of lust. On race days, the models pose wherever the media's lenses are - and with gurning male fans for countless Facebook page profile pictures. It is these fans - the down-to-earth, motoring-mad punters - who fill the grandstands around the world rather than the corporate hospitality boxes at the races and genuinely add to the buzz created by the roar of the fast cars, the charisma of the drivers and the glamour of the grid girls.
It is these fans who will not mind so much that accessing the Dubai circuit is still a dusty obstacle course thanks to the unfinished construction. This is because once the races start, it's all about the action on the track until the chequered flag is waved at the end of the race. While the Autodrome could very well become the place to be seen by Dubai socialites, it really has to become the place to be seen for the true petrolheads. If the Autodrome can attract those who live for the smell of hot brakes and burnt rubber, the 2008/09 season will have a chance to truly succeed.
For more information about the races at the Autodrome, log on to www.dubaiautodrome.com