x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dubai Autodrome is launching the Clio Cup driving experience on October 1 – we're first to try it out.

Courtesy Dubai Autodrome
Courtesy Dubai Autodrome

It’s fair to say that there’s something for everyone when it comes to spending our spare time in the UAE. Yet so often we hear excuses being made for appalling standards of driving on our roads, along the lines of “they’re bored and need to do something to get their kicks”. What utter nonsense this is.

There are more than enough opportunities for drivers to put pedal to metal and actually improve their skills behind the wheel (Yas Marina and Dubai Autodrome among them), from open track sessions where you can take your own car and drive it flat out, to racing schools, skid pan training and even drag racing. For high octane thrills we have an embarrassment of riches, yet so many of us aren’t even aware these facilities exist.

Paul Velasco is the head of communications at Dubai Autodrome, and he’s keen to redress the balance, taking speed and dangerous driving off our roads. And there’s a new weapon in the Autodrome’s arsenal in the form of the Renault Clio Cup driving experience. “Come and have a go,” he said. “You’ll love it, it’ll get your adrenalin pumping.”

So I arrive at the Autodrome on a blisteringly hot morning to the sight and sounds of three of the finest French pocket rockets in existence. These are not mere road cars that have been stripped down and modified for the track. Rather, they are purpose built in a dedicated factory, for racing. Nothing more, nothing less. And, as such, they offer a truly unique experience behind the wheel.

Velasco explains that these little racers are the mainstay of the UAE Touring Car Championship, which is part of the NGK racing series and makes for one of the most cost-effective ways into motor sport, no matter your experience level. Whether beginner or expert, this is the way into the sport that many have been desperate for because, like it or not, motor racing can be a seriously expensive business.

What though, you may well be asking, is the point of taking a Clio onto a racetrack? It’s something that crossed my mind, too, but appearances in this case are very deceiving. These cars are fitted with 2.0-litre engines that generate just over 200hp. So what? Well, they also weigh just 930kg – half what some cars with similar power outputs weigh. And as every enthusiast knows, the power-to-weight ratio of any sports car is of paramount importance.

There’s no mistaking the Clio Cup for a road car when you see one up close. They sit incredibly low to the ground, with a suitable angry stance. Open the door and there’s nothing inside except white painted metal, a couple of low slung and deep racing seats, a rudimentary instrument panel that shows speed and gear, a sequential gear shifter and a removable steering wheel. And that’s it, except for the Matter roll cage which requires careful negotiation before you can take your seat.

To do so, you need to have first removed the steering wheel before climbing through the white scaffolding, while trying not to look like a newborn foal with legs all over the place. Once seated, you adjust your seat so your feet reach the pedals OK, strap yourself in with the four-point harness, reattach the wheel and try not to drown in your own perspiration.

If this is all enough to put you off, don’t let it. There’s a clutch pedal sprouting from the floor but there’s no ordinary manual gearbox. Rather, a long and substantial lever is within reach of your right hand, and the instructions for changing gear are both very simple and very, very important. To change down you push the lever forward, to change up you pull it towards you. Get that wrong when you’re on the circuit at speed and you could cause a lot of damage.

This is all part and parcel of the race car experience – it’s the differences between this and a normal road car that first get the adrenalin pumping through your veins but don’t think for a minute that it’s at all intimidating. It’s just different.

With a helmet strapped on and an instructor, Ian Cox, at my side, it’s time to head out onto the dusty track. I’d been warned about sand on the tarmac during the safety briefing, where I was told that hitting it at speed can be as unsettling to a car as hitting a patch of water, especially if the car’s wheels are shod, as is the case here, with slick tyres. I was also told that, because the car is so noisy, that only hand signals can be used to communicate today, whereas the paying public will benefit from proper radio headsets when the experience officially goes live next month.

The violent racket once the engine bursts into life is quite unbelievable. The car shakes and shudders with every movement of the throttle, and I find myself wondering how a humble Renault could ever sound and feel so brutal. I’m beckoned out of the garage and onto the pit lane and my co-driver signals for me to go for it.

Slick tyres need to warm up before they afford any grip so my first lap and a half are spent trying to mentally note the braking and turning points while making the car move about enough for some heat to get into the rubber. On my second lap I properly put my foot down and revel in the full-on sensory overload. It’s remarkably stiff and understeer is totally absent as I charge through the tight corners of the circuit. The steering is heavy yet communicative and the brakes (no ABS here) require a great deal of respect, lest they should lock up when being applied.

Granted, along the straight, especially if there are no other cars battling with you for position, the Clio doesn’t feel all that fast, but that’s not the point here. It’s all about the race experience and this it delivers in spades. After six laps it’s time to call a halt to proceedings and head back to the pits, but it’s been enough to get the measure of this extraordinary little car. As I clamber out, my legs are shaking and my clothes are soaked through (no air conditioning, either), but Velasco absolutely nailed it when he said it would get the adrenalin pumping. What it must be like to race these things in close combat I can only imagine.

“Well done,” says Cox. “I’d be a passenger with you again any day.” The key, I have found over the years doing this kind of thing, is to be smooth with your inputs. Race cars are nowhere near as forgiving as those we do the daily commute in. They’re raw, uncompromising and take no prisoners. That said, the Clio Cup is easier to drive hard than many cars I’ve taken on track, and I can heartily recommend this experience to anyone with even the remotest interest in motor sport.

The Clio Cup concept was started in 2001 as a one-make racing series and now it is run as 15 separate championships around the world. It started here two years ago and has definitely made its mark as a brilliant and effective way into top level motor sport. When you see a grid packed with these cars, it’s worth noting that they are all exactly the same. No modifications are permitted except for minor alterations to the suspension set-up, meaning that it’s your driving skill that gets you to the podium.

Motor racing is still struggling in this region but things are improving, and it’s programmes such as this that are making a difference. While Formula One obviously gets all the attention here, that’s a sport out of reach for all but the wealthiest and most talented drivers. But this is a taster for something many more of us could actually take up and enjoy.

The whole experience costs Dh1,095 and lasts for two hours including the briefing, which is pretty good value for money, whether you want to treat yourself or someone else to some serious four-wheeled fun that doesn’t involve dunes or the risk of losing your licence. “One of the great things about circuit driving,” says Cox, “is that everyone is heading in the same direction. There’s very little danger here, we have plenty of space and the run-off areas are generous. Plus there’s always someone on hand to guide you so you get the most out of your experience.”

He’s absolutely right and, no matter how good a driver you think you are, you’ll always learn more and improve your skills if you listen to an actual expert who’s sat next to you. Such teams in the UAE have a great deal to offer all of us, and they’re all extremely keen to help improve the standards of driving on our roads. And while you might not see a correlation between racing a car like this around a purpose built circuit and safe driving on public highways, the fact remains that it’s an effective way to get it out of your system. Because once you pull into the pits, having thrashed a car that doesn’t belong to you, the calming effect can be palpable.

Speed has its place, of that there is no doubt. And experiencing it in a fully prepared Renault race car is a fine way to get your kicks, no matter how bored you are.

• For booking details visit www.dubaiautodrome.com

khackett@thenational.ae