Driving a car at a ridiculous angle isn't exactly natural but, as Neil Vorano finds, the mixture of skill and thrill is capturing a mainstream audience for drifting in the UAE.
Drifting events pack the house at Yas Marina Circuit
A strong, cool breeze is blowing across the night sky, bringing relief from the heat of the day as I step out of my car in the car park. I'm at Yas Marina Circuit, a place just far enough from the bustling city of Abu Dhabi that it could be a peaceful, serene getaway to watch the stars, but tonight it's far, far from that. Outside the doors of the race school, the sounds of screaming engines and squealing tyres shatter any semblance of tranquillity.
No one is here to relax. This is one of Yas Marina's organised, open drift nights, where anyone can show up with any car and, well, perhaps it's best described by Faisal Al Sahlawi, the head of Yas Marina's racing school.
"This is organised hooliganism," smiles Al Sahlawi as he greets me in the pit lane. Beside us are about 15 cars lined up, engines running with drivers milling about, all waiting to be the next one out on the track. The north end of the Formula One circuit forms the course for these drivers to go out, one by one, and drift - sliding their car sideways around corners, with tyres belching white smoke and squealing their displeasure at such abuse. It sounds like mayhem, but it takes great control to keep the cars from sliding off.
And it's obviously very popular; along with the 21 drivers and their cars, a big crowd is taking in the spectacle above us. A couple of hundred spectators - mostly young Emirati men with a few expats mingled in - pack the viewing areas on top of the racing school facilities, and they are an active, loud bunch, cheering as the cars slide around corners.
"Drifting, and the drag racing, we get good crowds, because that is what kids do anyway," says Al Sahlawi above the roaring engine of the car on track. Indeed, over at the drag strip this very night is the first round of the Yas Pro Drag Racing Series of the year, and its stands are packed with fans. "Drifting is very popular, and we wanted to give people a safe place to do it, off the streets. Some day, we will see all those stands full," he says, pointing to the expansive North Grandstand that wraps around the hairpin turn.
In fact, crowds are a vital part of this wild sport. Tonight is just an open night for fun, but in actual competitions the drivers are judged on four criteria: speed, drift angle, how close they get to clipping points and the reaction from the spectators. It's a unique way to involve an already rabid fanbase.
Joseph Jouma is one of the drivers the fans are cheering for. Jouma is part of the local drift club, Drift UAE, and has been practising for four years. He's already won two rounds of competition this year and is the GCC drift champion, and watching his car control around the track it's obvious he's good at it. He's driving a 1997 Nissan Silvia that is specially kitted out for drifting - including having a big V8 engine from a Corvette stuffed under its bonnet.
"Before I drag raced on the track, but I changed to drifting; it's more fun," says Jouma, as he waits his turn in the pits. "First I was drifting on the streets, then we opened a course in Al Ain.
"Every time we get bigger crowds; before, there was only one line - now we have four," he says as he points to the crowd.
The drivers come from all over the GCC for these events and tonight there are some from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. Most of the cars here are like Jouma's - older model coupés that have been gutted and souped up, specially prepared for track-only drifting. But one car stands out in the pit lane - a gleaming, pearl-white Mercedes-Benz CLS 63. Kamis Al Murar is sitting relaxed in the driver's seat with the door open; he's already been out on the track a few times, careering around corners in this big, four-door luxury car.
"It is my first time," laughs the 25-year-old from Abu Dhabi. "It's very organised here. I didn't know such a crowd would be here to watch.
"I need to change my tyres. That was my target, to burn them out, in a big way. I think I will be back, for sure. But I need to tune my car first."
Standing by the pit wall and watching car after car slide around the corner apexes, the appeal of the sport is apparent, if you're a petrolhead, but what's not so obvious is how accessible it is for anyone to participate. Dh20,000 is enough to start, with a cheap, used car, some work to the suspension and, of course, a good stock of tyres - competitors can go through two sets a night. Compare this with the costs of circuit racing, which can be 10 times or more that of drifting, and it starts to sound a lot more fun.
Mohammad Al Falasi owns Motorsport Solutions, an autosport services company that oversees Drift UAE, the local club that holds competitions for its 31 members (in fact, it's the only organised, competitive drift club in the GCC). Al Falasi says he's seen a huge increase in the sport's popularity over the past year and he is working to expand on that even further with training for new members and a drift festival on April 27 at the Dubai Autodrome, called the Dubai Chase.
"The society here has been drifting for a long time - illegally, on the streets," says Al Falasi. "No one was taking them seriously, no one thought it was something they had to foster. But once this legal, safe environment was established, people started to show interest and show up to watch.
"Our society have always treated drifters as bad boys but, internationally, drifting is becoming bigger, so naturally, it is growing in this region. And it will grow; tonight is only a small part of what we expect this event to have in the next few years. Less than a year ago, we didn't have one team; now we have four UAE teams, with sponsors. Before, we didn't have anyone from outside; now we have nine teams from around the GCC. We used to have nine cars, now we have 31."
The Dubai Chase will involve one of the eight rounds of competition for Drift UAE, but the day will also have live music, an autocross course, radio-controlled car drifting and other events meant to appeal to a broad audience. Al Falasi also hopes to hold future rounds of the Drift UAE closer to city centres - in car parks or other large facilities - to help showcase the sport and heighten interest, not only to get more fans to attend but also to attract possible sponsorship from businesses.
"We're trying to create a link between the street-racing culture and society. Street racing is hidden, underground and dangerous. We're creating an environment to get these street racers onto the track and interested in organised sport."
Here at Yas, the drifting is going long into the evening, scheduled all the way to midnight. The crowd is beginning to thin as the night goes on, but there's still quite a vocal and excited bunch left in the viewing areas. Before I go, I'm offered a ride by Muath Al Essa, a Saudi national who brought his BMW M3 over for the event. Al Essa is part of the Traction Off team, made up of various GCC drifters who travel the area for competitions and open nights like this one. And right from the point we roar out of the pit area onto the track, it's apparent he's had a few years' practice; Al Essa throws the car into the curves, sending the rear of the car out with controlled use of the steering wheel, brake and throttle. The engine roars, the tyres squeal and I'm looking out the passenger window where the car is headed towards a barrier before he catches it and changes direction in a flash. And we're both laughing throughout.