x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Go karting with a difference - on the ice rink at Dubai Mall

Karting on a mall's ice rink may be unconventional but, as Neil Vorano finds, it will thrill just about any petrolhead.

Neil Vorano (number 02) aligns his kart after a curve to power down the (very) short straight at the Dubai Ice Rink last weekend. Duncan Chard for The National
Neil Vorano (number 02) aligns his kart after a curve to power down the (very) short straight at the Dubai Ice Rink last weekend. Duncan Chard for The National

Here's another activity to mark off my "must do" list in the UAE.

Oh, this isn't the list of things I've always wanted to do; this is the list of sheer ridiculous things to do in a desert region. I've already checked off the "skiing in a mall" and "playing ice hockey" out here; both things the people at home can shake their head at. And now, I can add "ice racing".

Yes, that certainly sounds ridiculous - were it not such a great idea.

A brilliant idea, in fact. Racing go karts around a makeshift oval track right on the ice rink at the Dubai Mall, in front of casually strolling and mildly curious shoppers, may sound like a weird and even laughable thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, but all it would take is seven minutes (the scheduled time for each outing) in the tight seat of one of these karts to bring out the Sebastien Loeb in anyone.

The timed ice racing event was sponsored by Tag Heuer and Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, a local distributor of the watch brand, and held last weekend at the busy mall. Open to the public, it allowed seven minutes of racing around the rink to test a participant's car control skills - and they were certainly needed here.

The karts themselves were electric, so no fumes to bother the shoppers. Bumpers and seat belts took care of safety, and they were shod with little grooved tyres with tiny studs for traction - cute is not a word we often use in Motoring, but I'll use it here to describe the rubber.

But that's where the cuteness stops. Participants were pitted against a group of about five other drivers, but it was the fastest lap that won each heat. These times were then put against other winners from the rest of the heats during the day to find who came out on top, with the final winner getting a gift certificate towards a new watch.

"When you talk about the spirit of Tag Heuer, we are about sport," said Luc Decroix, the general manager for Heuer in the Middle East and Indian Ocean. "But we are also about daring, and here you have everything of this. With the venue, you also have the glamour; you have people from so many countries here. It's a perfect venue and a perfect event for us."

Well, daring may be a bit much; with such short distances and little traction, the karts barely got up past jogging speeds. But that didn't matter when you hit the corners, which is the whole point of racing on ice.

See, living here in the UAE, some people may not know that ice is very slippery, even when your tyres have little metal studs for traction. Coming full tilt into the turn - or as full tilt as you can in an electric kart - you turn the wheel and keep on the throttle. Suddenly the rear end whips out from behind you and you're now steering the other way and letting off the gas as the kart is sliding sideways around the bend.

But it's not even as easy as that. Too much throttle will put you into a spin; not enough and, well, you'll probably spin again. Or your kart pushes forward with massive understeer, losing all traction in the front wheels completely. It's a delicate balance and takes plenty of movement with your right foot on and off the throttle to get it right.

But this being a race, it's not all about drifting. You still have to be the fastest around the circuit, a lap that Rashad Saad managed to do in 16:953 seconds to win the event (that's about one and a bit seconds faster than I was, for the record). But to do this, you need to gain traction leaving the turn as soon as possible, so the studs can bite into the ice and get the kart up to speed quickly. Again, it's all about the balance. It's certainly not easy.

This was the second year for the event and Tag Heuer is looking at another next year. But Decroix says the watchmaker's presence in local motorsport might not end there.

"It's something we are looking at here," he said. "You know, worldwide, we have partnerships with McLaren, with Audi at Le Mans, with the Monaco Grand Prix. It's something we will study. For what I see here, people love sports cars, so we want to find a bigger thing, something of a regular thing, to tie our brand with.

"We were involved with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and we will continue to be involved in motorsport - it's a part of the Tag Heuer DNA."

The watchmaker should start with more ice racing, and not just on a yearly basis, either. It's a fun and safe way to learn much more about car control and, judging by the participation of the public last weekend, it is sure to be a hit with people here. If anything could make me want to spend a weekend at the mall, this could be it.