Specially designed Beetles came to the emirate for a test ahead of a new Fun Cup event. Motoring was happy to help...
Beetle's fun day out in Dubai
Friday morning was beautiful. Crystal clear sky, warm but not hot, with the sun shining down brightly on Dubai. But it's not your typical leisurely start to the weekend here in the paddock area at the Dubai Autodrome; not many people would welcome screaming engines to accompany their morning coffee. Unless they're a petrol-head, of course.
One of the many open track days here has more than a few people wiping the sleep from their eyes early and bringing their race cars down for some hot laps and practice at getting fast. Some of the participants race in the UAE's many homegrown race series; there's a Corvette, some Porsches and Renault Clios, even a tiny Ariel Atom is sitting in the shade, waiting its turn. But three cars are drawing quizzical stares both on and off the track.
Tony Burton is standing talking to people in a garage on the far side of the bigger racers. Inside sit what appears to be three classic Volkswagen Beetles, done up in race livery with giant wings hanging off their rear ends. But these aren't old jalopies with a fancy paint job, they represent what Burton is here to show and test as the start of his new project in the GCC - the Fun Cup Middle East Championship.
"I came to Dubai in 2008," says Burton, "and at the time there was no arrive-and-drive packages at all, and there was no endurance racing series. I saw a gap in the market: an entry level endurance race series. And because this had been going on for 14 years in Europe as a proven concept and a proven brand, I have the support of the factory, it just made sense."
Since then, the Suzuki Sprint Championship, an arrive-and-drive series, has started here in the UAE, but it focusses on shorter and more furious 15-minute races. The Fun Cup will have races that last four to six hours, with teams made up of a maximum six drivers per car. In the series' 14-year existence, it has proven very popular in Europe. Last year, at a 25-hour race at Spa Francorchamp circuit in Belgium, 165 cars started the race, with 30,000 people in attendance.
The cars are purpose-built for racing at a factory called Speed World in Belgium, with tube chassis, full roll cage and a custom-made body that opens up like a clamshell to reveal the engine. It's powered by a 130hp, 1.8L four-cylinder sourced by Audi. There is also a diesel version available.
And if you don't think it looks like a race car from the outside, you'll find out it is as soon as you sit inside. Or, rather, crawl inside; the roll bars form a nest of snakes that make you wish you had stretched before lifting one leg in, bending your back forward to fall into the seat and then contorting your other leg to pull it into the cockpit. There's only one snug race seat, situated in the middle, but once inside it's fairly comfortable. The surroundings are pure race car: bare metal all around with a stark dashboard facing you, lined with switches and dominated by a digital readout that counts revs and monitors oil pressure and water temperature, among other things.
Fire it up, and yes, it sounds like a race car. The cockpit rattles and the roar from behind you is pleasantly noisy, blatting out of the tail pipe in an angry drone.
And out on the track, yes, it feels like a proper race car. The steering is heavy, the seat vibrates and the rising crescendo of the engine is overpowering. And despite its low horsepower, it's plenty quick because it weighs less than 800kg.
It's also very forgiving. I was running the full National circuit at the Autodrome on rain tyres (the racers will be out on same-spec dry race tyres), so there was wiggling in tight curves, but controlling the throttle kept it in control. And if you do happen to let the tail out, you have, oh, about an hour to correct it; it's that easy. But keeping the revs up by rowing through the five-speed manual gearbox is a hoot, and the stiff steering and a propensity to oversteer means you'll work hard to go fast. As you should. It won't beat the Corvettes or Porsches, but I can see why they're called "Fun Cup" cars.
After five laps, a high water temperature reading ended my drive - Burton is still testing them to find a proper package for the UAE. "They're literally just off the boat," he says.
But he'll have them ready for the first races on January 28 and 29 at the Autodrome; in fact, he's already signed 40 competitors for that event, most from Europe. He hopes to rent the six cars he has available to local competitors, for US$7,000 (Dh25,712) per person, and he's already sold two at $52,000 (Dh191,000) each.
"The actual Middle East Fun Cup championship is not due to start until next season," says Burton. There are two six-hour races in Dubai in January 2011, races in Bahrain over February 4-5, a 25-hour race in Spa in July, then the first proper race in the UAE to start the championship later in 2011. Burton is hoping Yas and Qatar will be involved in that series.
If all goes well, the series will be yet another addition to the UAE's growing motorsport scene, an addition that is sure to add, well, some fun.