x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Drifting gains traction in the Emirates with Yas event

Originating from Japan, the madness of Formula Drift threatens to take hold here in the UAE. Come along to the Yas Marina Circuit for one crazy ride.

"Mad" Mike Whiddett, left, and Michael Essa will be performing their drifting skills, alongside local drivers, at the Yas Marina Circuit. Ravindranath K / The National

When you think of drifting, that mad sport of screaming engines and tyres and cars sliding side-by-side around a racetrack, you don't necessarily think of it as a safer motorsport alternative.

But for "Mad" Mike Whiddett, it's exactly what the New Zealander needed to just survive.

Whiddett got into motocross when he was young, but growing up without his father limited his budget for racing, making hard for him to keep up. This led to his decision to switch to freestyle motocross: "You don't have to have a brand new bike and did that for about three years and broke just about every bone in my body."

Whiddett isn't your typical car racer type. His overalls are baggy, his hat is skewed on his head irreverently and he has a pierced eyebrow. But for a sport aimed at the young, adrenalin-fuelled crowd always looking for excitement, he has exactly the type of persona that makes him a star in the sport.

He and Michael Essa from the US were in town this week to give a smoke-filled drifting demonstration at Yas Marina Circuit. They'll be around next weekend, along with a few other drivers from the Formula Drift series, to showcase their amazing car control skills in competition at the Abu Dhabi racetrack.

The professionals will also be joined by four Emirati racers, who were to be chosen from a group of 10 in a competition yesterday.

Drifting is a fairly new form of motorsport, originating in Japan. The idea isn't about being the fastest; it's about having the most flair as drivers slide the rear end of their cars around corners.

"There's a set of guidelines or points of where you're supposed to put your car on the track," explains Essa. "There are set speeds in areas, it's almost like road racing but in drifting you get judged. You have to hit those points and if you don't you get deducted points.

"When you run tandem, two cars at a time, as the lead car you're supposed to run the best lap you can and put the car in all the right places at the highest speeds possible; the guy following is supposed to shadow you and if he can mirror everything the lead driver is doing he's pretty much showing that 'it doesn't really matter what you're doing, I can do it, too'."

And officials at Yas Marina have high hopes that the sport will catch on at a grass-roots level here in the UAE.

"The main idea of bringing Formula Drift is that it's a new form of motorsport, and it's growing," says Richard Cregan, chief executive of the circuit. "We wanted to introduce this to the public and basically get that point across that we're open to all new forms of motorsport.

"The second thing is that we wanted to get the participation of the local enthusiasts. And we've got those guys involved, they'll be performing at Yas, and that will really go out in the public domain as something you can do as a normal guy or girl from the street.

"The professionals we brought in will show people the high level of what can be achieved, and that's very important to set those targets and make sure people know what they can achieve in a particular discipline."

But it's already growing here, even before the big Formula Drift show was announced. Samer Khadra leads a group of drifters, called SSK, that regularly hold drift nights at the skid pad at Yas Marina. In the eight months the group has been in existence, it has grown considerably.

"We started with five guys," says Khadra. "Now we have 35; we have about 17 local drivers and then others from different nationalities. Most guys are around 20, up to 32 or so. A couple are about mid-forties or fifties, locals."

SSK is a typical start-up, grass-roots racing organisation, with a group of enthusiasts that not only pay their own way, but help each other out.

"It was very difficult in the beginning," says Khadra. "We started with scrapyard cars, then fixing them, then making the rules, etc etc.

"We approached Yas, and they said make a proposal. So I did that, and they said that safety was very important. So we have scrutineering, we have rules, parc fermé, and they saw this and they now support us."

Yas approached the group to see if they would be interested in finding drivers who wanted to get trained and drive in the big event.

"Yas came to us to ask if we can find 10 local drivers for this competition, so I asked the group," says Khadra. "And they said, what do we have to do? We'll work on the cars, we'll work hard, and they were very excited."

SSK brought in help from the British Drift Championship to help prepare their cars and hone their skills for the competition.

As for Whiddett, he'll be aiming to beat the four local drivers and his rivals at the Friday event, but for him, winning isn't everything.

"I've always been a showman, and I love to entertain. I want to make sure that every person that spends 20 bucks on a ticket will say, 'wow, that was 20 bucks' worth', and they'll remember me and go home with a poster.

"There's two different ways to drive: you can come here to win over the three judges, or you can come here to win over the crowd. And I come here for the crowd."

Want to try drifting? Visit sskdrift.com for details on the group's next event


A sideways glance

I've driven many a fast car on a track and even tried auto racing, but none of that can prepare me for being a passenger in "Mad" Mike Whiddett's Mazda RX-8 at Yas Marina Circuit.

This isn't your normal race car; it's beat up, with the bumpers cracked and flapping and dents and scuffs all around. Inside, the bare dash is filled with funny stickers and wires flap around in the cockpit. Whiddett starts it up with a deafening, high-toned shriek and we putter out onto the track for a warm-up lap.

Then Whiddett rips the throttle open, and in no time we are screeching sideways, the engine running at redline and the cockpit filling with blue smoke. We enter the turn with me looking out the driver's window at it, then snap 180 degrees for the next corner, floating around the apex sideways, tyres screeching, then quickly snapping again in the opposite direction. I can't stop giggling.

Whiddett rights the car for a short straight, and I know what's coming as the corner approaches. Instantly, the RX8 snaps sideways again, and we're going down the straight in a way Mazda never intended its cars to travel. Whiddett keeps the engine revving high with quick gear changes, furiously working the steering wheel.

A few more corners and my lap is over; Whiddett gives me an excited fore- and pinky-finger gesture that shows he had as much fun as I did.

An observer might say drifting is just a bunch of cars out of control; on the contrary, it was some of the best car control I have ever experienced.