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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

UAE home to world's first sand-racing supercar

Dubai-based Zarooq Motors' SandRacer 500GT will soon be coming to market, promising a unique combination of capabilities

The Zarooq SandRacer 500GT is described by its UAE makers as a supercar for the desert
The Zarooq SandRacer 500GT is described by its UAE makers as a supercar for the desert

In a region where off-roading among the spectacular sandscapes and eye-catching luxury motoring are at the top of the list of many drivers, one young UAE firm has combined the two with its unique new machine - the SandRacer 500GT.

Conceived, designed and built by Dubai-based Zarooq Motors, the vehicle is to dune bashing and high-end motoring what Formula One is to high speed and good looks.

And the folk behind the company have some serious pedigree in motorsport to call on. The firm is run by the Emirati Mohammed Al Qadi, with the Anglo-French marketing strategist Iannis Mardell, plus the French former racing driver Bruno Laffite and his Belgian wife Laetitia Laffite, who are based in Monaco.

"The initial bond between us is Formula One," says Mr Mardell

"Mohammed was senior director of Yas Marina Circuit, Bruno’s family include a Monaco GP winner [Jaques Laffite, an F1 driver from 1974 to 1986 who won six GPs], an F1 TV anchor and [Bruno] himself was a pro driver in European and US championships [IndyCar], while my family was running Winfield, the most successful Formula One racing school ever.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 28, 2013:      Yas Marina Circuit Senior Director of Operations Mohammed Al Qadi speaks during an interview ahead of the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on October 28, 2013. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: Kevin Hackett
Section: Weekend *** Local Caption ***  CP1028-F1 cover story023.JPG
Mohammed Al Qadi. Christopher Pike / The National

"In 2014, Bruno came to the UAE with the objective to launch a GT series championship here and we met to discuss it. I brought Mohammed into the conversation in order to capitalise on his 15 years of experience in UAE motorsport.

"After careful appraisal of the market, we reached the conclusion that off-road was the avenue we should pursue rather than tarmac, because of the passion for the desert that is a key component of the UAE’s car culture."

Mr Laffite says the team felt that approach would be also more commercially attractive, from a corporate and tourist standpoint. But, he says, aside from land, the company lacked one crucial element - a vehicle.

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"We needed a car that is iconic, unique and ideally a single type. The problem was that we could not find any which was suitable among existing ones such as sandcars, ATVs, big 4x4s or racing prototypes."

Mr Al Qadi says that is what inspired the team to build their own. "That’s where we saw an opportunity, a gap in the market: there are no cars today with which you can safely race off-road while also being road legal and good looking, which never harms… So we decided to gather the necessary talents and create our own car, born in the UAE: a new kind of supercar, a supercar you can take in the desert.

"Bruno brought to the table top-notch European racing engineers – Philippe Gautheron from Campos Racing, we hired a UAE-based designer who had already penned some supercars [Anthony Jannarelly, the man behind the UAE-built Design 1 retro supercar] and I made sure the specs were perfect for both a bash in Liwa in August or for a casual drive on Sheikh Zayed Road.

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"That’s why we named our brand 'Zarooq', which is the Emirati name for the fastest snake in the desert, the Sandracer. We actually owe the name to Rashed Ahmed Al Nasseri, a young national from Al Ain who is passionate about cars and the desert," Mr Al Qadi adds.

He says initially, he, Mr Laffite and Mr Mardell, with support from family, provided the design and first prototype funding of US$750,000.

"As we had good connections in the automotive and motorsport world, we managed to have a running mock-up one year after the initial idea and six months after announcing it during the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix in 2015," Mr Al Qadi says.

And Zarooq has timed its new venture well: "The global luxury car market has seen been relatively untouched by the financial crisis and has been posting growth driven by the emerging markets," says Research and Markets in a report earlier this year. "World over while mass automobile manufacturers are struggling with margins, high end manufacturers are enjoying steadily increasing sales."

The UAE firm is also ideally located. "Even amidst the economic slowdown globally, the sales of luxury cars per capita are still the highest in the Middle East," adds Research and Markets.

In April 2016, Ms Laffite, who is a luxury market expert based with her husband in Monaco, decided to invest $1 million, taking the project from seed to early-stage investment level.

"The concept of a UAE-born desert supercar looked very promising and I decided to commit not only means but also my know-how," Ms Lafitte says.

"We improved the performance of the car, made its design more aggressive and brought the finish to a whole new dimension with a partnership with Mansory, the German star supercar tuner: hand-stitched leather; carbon fibre; German preparation of the engine. These were necessary to have a car which really stands out in the low volume, high luxury supercar arena," Ms Laffite points out.

There are other high-end, niche car makers in the UAE, such as Jannarelly Automotive, the Design-1 maker. First unveiled in June last year, the car is currently undergoing a thorough final testing programme. Also based in Dubai is W Motors, the company behind the Lykan and the Fenyr Supersport hypercars. In 2015, Abu Dhabi police took delivery of a tech-tricked out Lykan HyperSport, which the company said at the time was "just a computerised voice away from becoming RoboCop".

But none of these cars are able to rival the Zarooq vehicle's dual sand and road capabilities - a fact that caught the eye of one discerning client very early on. The SandRacer GT500 was a hit even before it was available to buy, says Mr Al Qadi. "It was a bit unexpected. We sold our first car while we were still completing the prototype and had not yet opened sales.

"We were contacted by the private office of an eminent member of the Saudi royal family who loved the car and wanted to be the first one to have it."

So what of the future? "In terms of financial performance, we intend to grow in a sustainable manner and consistently invest in R&D, marketing and broaden our geographical reach through homologations," says Mr Mardell.

"To start with, we have chosen to have a very flexible fixed cost base, therefore breakeven should be reached in 18 months. We are looking to accelerate our development and gather a first round of investors of $5m to $10m in the next semester. The prospects of value creation are significant with an average luxury car industry ebitda of 15 to 25 per cent, and target sales above $50m in five years."

And, says Ms Laffite, the target market is home to some very high-end players. "We are in the ultra exclusive car market with cars above $400,000. It is a 10,000 cars per annum market where each manufacturer [makes] a few dozens to a few hundred cars per annum and has a very distinct offer -ranging from British luxury cars like Rolls Royce/Bentley - the only players with sales above 1,000 per year in this bracket - to the top of the range of Italian supercar manufacturers such as Lamborghini, Ferrari and the exclusive ultra small-scale hypercar manufacturers like Pagani and Koenigsegg.

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"The market is fragmented as clients look for exclusivity and therefore the manufacturers are by definition small scale," Ms Laffite says.

"Demand side, this market consists mainly of ultra high net worth individuals who buy yachts, planes, helicopters, fine wines but also have a passion for cars and who see them as good investments."

She says very high-end cars are one of the best investments to make as, unlike many other expensive items, they gain value.

"Also in terms of value for personal enjoyment, supercars are the number one item," Ms Laffite adds.

The company sees this country and the wider region as an initial market.

"The Middle East is clearly a priority for us with KSA and UAE being the biggest prospects in the GCC," says Mr Al Qadi. "It is our natural playground, our roots and those clients are the ones who inspired us. Growth in the ultra market will come from emerging countries in Asia, for instance India and Indonesia, which we are ideally positioned to serve in the UAE."

Having said that, as Mr Laffite points out, the current core of the ultra car market remains in the US. "We plan on meeting a strong demand there because of a similar passion for exclusive cars and off-road," he says. "As of today, most of our enquiries and sales ventures are split between the GCC and the US. Europe has also a solid base of affluent car lovers, so me being in Monaco makes sense, while opening in the US is very near on the agenda."

Bruno Lafitte, Zarooq co-founder, unveils the Zarooq Sandracer in Dubai on Tuesday. Sarah Dea / The National
Bruno Lafitte. Sarah Dea / The National

Those intrigued at the prospect of a supercar dune-basher will not have to wait too long to get up close and personal with the Zarooq motor. "I am currently working on the launch of the SandRacer 500GT, which will be unveiled at an exclusive motor show in the coming months," says Mr Al Qadi. That may well be the Geneva Motor Show in March.

Mr Laffite, meanwhile, is working hard to make sure the first production car hits all the targets the company has for it in terms of performance and finish. He says his experience of the prototypes was very encouraging.

"As an IndyCar driver, I have driven at 380kph and I can tell you I have had more sensations on a SandRacer GT500 going at 180kph in the desert, the acceleration and feeling of speed is extraordinary even though the racing suspension provide an eerie sense of comfort.

"Every detail of the finish must be absolutely perfect, of course, and we are spending days and nights on it. This time invested will greatly facilitate the next batches of production which we will be launching soon."

Mr Mardell says the company is now at the stage where further funding will be required. "Our first round of investors will be key," he says. "We are looking for actual partners; people who share our vision of building a sustainable industry in the UAE serving global clients."

Ms Laffite, in turn, is currently laying the groundwork for exclusive partnerships with luxury partners to prepare for future limited edition series and to build the company’s international presence.

Zarooq has high hopes for a bright, and global, future. "In five years’ time, we will have established a solid manufacturing base in the UAE with a reliable supply chain, coupled with international operations; we will have trained some UAE nationals as engineers and mechanics in our locations; we will be a key stakeholder in GCC motorsports," predicts Mr Al Qadi. "The national strategy and vision for GCC countries all steer in the same direction of more home-grown sustainable industries fostering the development of national talent and leveraging on local competitive advantages.

"We completely fall into all of those as we want to create the backbone of a local industry, we want to develop national talent and our venture makes sense in terms of promoting a meaningful product to be grown in the UAE."

Mr Laffite adds the car will be distributed on all continents "with solid partners able to serve our clients and maintain our cars in line with our quality expectations; we will have internalised more core competencies in engineering, manufacturing and design; we will have manufactured several limited series edition of the SandRacer, and introduced two new models".

Mr Al Qadi says the company based its proposition on the GCC’s culture and values. "The UAE rhymes with innovation and excellence and that’s what we aim at," he says. "The UAE is synonymous with powerful and extreme supercars, that’s what we do; the desert of the UAE is world famous, that’s what where we find our inspiration."

As for how the Zarooq vehicle compares with two-seater supercars such as Lamborghini and McLaren, for example, Mr Laffite says the SandRacer has similar performance in acceleration and power-to-weight and luxury finish for the body interior.

But, he points out, there is one key distinction: "The only and major difference is that speed bumps are not a problem. Our car can be taken to race the Dakar off-road when most sportscars struggle to cope with a well-groomed golf green."

Mr Mardell says as far as Zarooq is concerned, the journey is more important than the destination. "Driving is an actual pleasure and we want our clients to smile every time they see and step into one of our cars. We don’t promise face-bending speeds, we don’t promise gazillions of electronic assists that will turn any driver into thinking he can take a corner as fast as an F1 racer.

"On the other hand, we deliver a car that you can feel and with which driving is a deeply rooted emotional experience."

Most importantly, adds Mr Al Qadi, the SandRacer offers clients an opportunity to be unique. "We will never produce car series beyond 100 units: you know that when you buy a Zarooq, your neighbour is unlikely to have one," he says.

Owning one, unsurprisingly, will not be cheap. "The price of our first 35 Limited series of SandRacer 500GT is Dh1.65m," says Mr Laffite.

"It comes standard with a 6.2 naturally aspirated V8 delivering 525hp, weighs 1,250kg, sports a full carbon fibre body, a luxury interior, an off-road racing sequential gearbox and suspension allowing for 45cm suspension travel.

"All our cars are made to order so the bespoke modifications are limitless. In terms of timing for delivery, and depending on the options like Kevlar reinforced carbon fibre skid plates or silver-coated painting, it usually takes six months."

After all the hard work the team put into to launching the company and creating the SandRacer, the arrival of the real thing was, it seems, quite an emotional experience.

"Undoubtedly, the greatest highlight was seeing the car driving for the first time," says Mr Al Qadi. Mr Lafitte concurs: "It was such an achievement, a sigh of relief after so much work, so many doubts, hurdles, difficulties."

For he and his wife, the realisation of the dream had a very personal touch.

"It was like seeing a new-born baby," Ms Laffite says, adding "which we had in parallel, by the way."

While Mr Mardell was similarly moved, he is a little more pragmatic. "I was also so proud when we made our first sale," he says. "I am now looking forward to setting up our full-fledged production facilities and seeing our pieces of art regularly coming out of it."

In the end, Mr Al Qadi says the creation of Zarooq is more than just the birth of a car company. "We are making history," he says.

"We are [among] the first Emirati car manufacturers, what more could I hope for?"