x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Champion Mohammed ben Sulayem has plenty left in tank

Mohammed ben Sulayem has put in a lot of mileage from rally winner in the mid-1980s to promoting the UAE Desert Championship and the FIA.

UAE rally driver Mohammed ben Sulayem sits in his Ford Focus in 2000.
UAE rally driver Mohammed ben Sulayem sits in his Ford Focus in 2000.

In the early to mid-1980s, when the UAE and motorsport were mentioned in the same breath, it could only mean one thing. Mohammed ben Sulayem had won yet another desert rally.

Three decades on, he is one of the most powerful figures in motor racing and on Tuesday was appointed by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the governing body for world motorsport, to oversee a task force charged with plotting a 10-year plan for the sport's worldwide development.

It has been a long and bumpy ride. When Ben Sulayem started out in rallying, the UAE was barely in its teens, as a nation; but in a career spanning two decades, he not only became the country's first motor-racing champion, in many ways he was also its first international sporting figure.

By the time he won his first FIA Middle East Rally Championship title, in 1986, not even the nation's footballers, four years away from taking part in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, could yet compete with his profile.

For racing fans familiar only with the glamour of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, it is worth pointing out that without rallying, and Ben Sulayem's trailblazing efforts on and off the track, it is unlikely we would be taking Yas Island's annual racing extravaganza so much for granted.

In 2008, Sulayem was named vice president of the FIA and a member of the World Motor Sport Council. As head of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), Ben Sulayem was also one of the main reasons behind the success of the Abu Dhabi's inaugural race in 2009.

Now, he is set to rejuvenate rallying.

On Sunday, in his capacity as president of the Emirates Motor Sport Federation (EMSF) and the ATCUAE, he announced the launch of a four-round UAE Desert Championship starting in October. The inaugural 2013/14 series will consist of four Baja-style events taking place in October, November, January and February.

That the oldest racing category in the UAE is getting a much-needed boost will mean more to Ben Sulayem than most.

While the Dubai International Rally is now in its 35th uninterrupted year, the UAE Desert Challenge, launched by Ben Sulayem in 1991, in 2009 became the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

Now the national moniker is back, the UAE Desert Championship marking a welcome return to rallying's roots across the Emirates' deserts dunes.

Not too long ago, that terrain provided the only place to watch motor racing in the country.

"In the UAE, we have the best playground in the world for this type of motorsport." Bin Sulayem, 52, said. And no one has enjoyed competing on it as much as he has over the years.

To name but a few achievements, he has been Middle East champion 14 times, with a record of 60 rally wins in the FIA Middle East series, and he also recorded successes in the FIA World Rally Championship, in Spain and Argentina.

Ben Sulayem stopped racing in 2002, but never retired officially, and remains unbeaten in the FIA Middle East series.

That "playground" has served him, and all those who followed in his tracks, well. The next generation of racers, and fans, should be the ones reaping the benefits.

For them, today's motor racing landscape is unrecognisable from those halcyon 1980s days.

The country is now home to two of the best racing tracks in the region in Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit and the Dubai Autodrome, which according to reports earlier this week could be holding Formula One testing by next year.

Meanwhile, karting has found a home at Al Ain Raceway, and drag racing and other categories of racing take place on Yas all year round.

Slowly, talent is emerging too. Last October, Khalid Al Balooshi, part of Qatar Al Anabi team, won his first race in the Top Fuel class in NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing - the first Emirati driver, and only the third from outside North America, to do so.

In June, Khaled Al Qubaisi, racing in a Dunlop Ferrari 458 sponsored by Emirates Aluminium and supported by Abu Dhabi Racing, became the first driver from the UAE to compete at, and complete, the 24 Hours at Le Mans. With his teammates, Saudi's Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal and Andrea Bertolini of Italy, Al Qubaisi even achieved his main target of a top-10 finish in the GTE Pro class.

And then of course there is the jewel in the crown - the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which celebrates its fifth edition this year.

On Sunday, November 3, the eyes of the motor racing world will once again be on the Yas Marina Circuit.

The UAE's most influential racing figure will, you can be certain, already be looking ahead to the next challenge. Just like he did all those years ago on the dunes of Abu Dhabi.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae