x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Motorsport contest draws stars out of their comfort zones at Yas circuit

Despite being a friendly contest pitting top Emirati drivers against some of the world's best racers, the Etihad Head2Head Challenge brings out their competitive streak.

From left, Raed Raffii, Hamed Al Wahaibi, Saeed Al Mehairi, Tonio Liuzzi and Mika Salo chat before the drag racing at Yas Marina. Sammy Dallal / The National
From left, Raed Raffii, Hamed Al Wahaibi, Saeed Al Mehairi, Tonio Liuzzi and Mika Salo chat before the drag racing at Yas Marina. Sammy Dallal / The National

When a dozen luminaries of the Arabian, European and Australian motorsports scenes gathered at Abu Dhabi's Formula One circuit this week, you'd never have guessed that the only prize on offer was bragging rights.

But when you pit five top Emirati drivers against another few from around the Gulf, a couple of Formula One drivers and a pair of Aussie V8 Supercar aces, it turns out that bragging rights are more than ample motivation because competitiveness is something all of them have embedded deep in their DNA.

"It's all very friendly," V8 Supercar champion Craig Lowndes explains in a broad Aussie drawl, "but when you jump in the car and put on your helmets, a red mist comes down and everyone wants to win."

The ostensible goal of the Etihad Head2Head Challenge is to showcase the emirate's attractions ahead of November's Formula One race in the UAE - where the V8 Supercars will also be competing - demonstrating that motorsport in Abu Dhabi is much more than a one-trick pony.

So as well as driving Formula Yas 3000 racing cars on Yas Marina Circuit, there was also drag racing, karting, drifting and pit-stop wheel changing competitions.

Earlier, Lowndes and fellow Aussie V8er Lee Holdsworth had done a time trial up the Jebel Hafeet road in their race cars, taken a helicopter tour, pretended to be pilots on the Etihad flight simulator and even tried out - petrolheads, prepare yourselves - non-motorised adventures such as whitewater rafting on a purpose-built course in Al Ain.

What had been a private rivalry between Lowndes and Holdsworth, who regularly race against each other in the Australian V8 Supercars series, took on an international dimension when they joined the other drivers at the Yas circuit on Sunday. While not open to the public, the day will feature on Australian television and on Etihad's in-flight entertainment programming.

Representing the UAE were rally driver Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, former karting champions Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum and Saeed Al Mehairi, this year's 24 Hours of Dubai race class winner Khalid Al Qubaisi and rising Radical Cup star Juma Ali Al Dhaheri.

Other GCC countries were represented by Saeed Almouri, from Saudi Arabia, Raed Raffii, from Bahrain, Hamed Al Wahaibi, from Oman, and a reserve driver, Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, from Qatar.

Brought in from Europe were former Formula One drivers Mika Salo, a Finnish driver who is a veteran of eight Grand Prix seasons, and former Red Bull driver Tonio Liuzzi, from Italy.

The competition rules were simple: the dozen would be randomly arranged into six teams of two who then tackle a series of motorsport disciplines.

As they emerge from the meeting room where these arranged partnerships have just taken place, there's a vague sense of apprehension. With each of them stepping out of their areas of expertise and mastery, the real bragging rights up for grabs here are showing some of the best drivers in the world who has the raw skill to excel across motorsports disciplines.

And that probably explains why there is a lot of light-hearted banter between them that inevitably is intended to obscure some nervousness as they embark on the first challenge: drag racing.

Some, such as Lowndes, exude a supreme confidence - whether for real or for show - that seems an inescapable part of the character of Australian sportsmen. Others openly voice their concerns about cutting it in a discipline they have never tried before.

There's just one training run before it's time to race for real, with sudden-death elimination for anyone who comes second or jumps the start. By the end of the practice run, that ever-so-slightly nervous banter is mostly replaced by a sense of purpose as teammates confer on what they've learnt and how they can improve their performances. It's not just with their new teammates, though, as former Grand Prix veterans Liuzzi and Salo take time to confer on aspects such as whether it was better to have the Camaros' traction control system engaged or not.

"I tried both," Salo says. "Without traction control is better."

Liuzzi concurs. When asked who he thinks his main competition will be in the Head2Head challenge, he replies: "I see everybody as competition."

He admits that he rates the Aussie V8 drivers as "tough cookies" and also says he expects this section of the challenge to be the most difficult.

"I've never done anything like this."

Elsewhere, Lowndes is telling one of the Emirati drivers how to work the starting system, comprised of a vertical array of lights in red, yellow and green.

"If you wait until green, it's too late," he says. "Yellow and you go. It's really all about reaction time, drag racing. If you get off the lights quickest, you'll get to the end quickest."

The drag racing over, the group moves to Yas Racing School as the afternoon merges into evening and the lights come on at the North Grandstand section of the F1 circuit. The rest of the competition will be based on a truncated version of the Yas Marina Circuit, around the North Grandstand's famous hairpin, and involves kart racing, pit stop tyre-changing challenges, drifting and a sprint race on Yas Formula 3000 single-seater cars.

Instantly, most of the drivers felt more at home, and particularly in the karts, which for many of them was their way into the world of motorsport while they were still boys. Luizzi and Lowndes were both nine years old when they started kart racing, beginning a process that would lead them on respective paths to becoming a Formula One driver and a V8 Supercar champion. Sheikh Hasher's path to being one of the UAE's top drivers included two UAE karting championships.

By the time they emerge from the practice laps and qualifying, all nervousness is gone and there's the buzz of having worked out the track then giving it full throttle. As they pull back into the slip lane outside the racing school, the smiles and laughter are clear even before they remove their helmets.

By the time the 15-minute race is over, there have been a series of epic duels - between Sheikh Hasher and Saeed Al Mehairi, who worked their way from the back of the starting grid to the front of the pack, swapping places right through the race before Al Mehairi, Sheikh Hasher's teammate, finally clinches victory.

Back in the pack, Almouri and Sheikh Khalid are having an even tighter battle. They often appear side by side, clashing the karts' side guards, and using the grass as a short cut.

"This was not an easy race," Al Mehairi admits afterwards. "We had a good start from the beginning. My teammate held me for a few laps. We were battling for the whole race."

By now the lights on the Yas Marina Circuit are lighting up the dusk as the drivers switch to drifting the Camaros around the same circuit just used by the karts and finally a Yas Formula 3000 sprint race.

At the end of a long evening, the bragging rights for the day went to Lowndes and Sheikh Hasher, whose team pipped Salo and Almouri, relegating Liuzzi and Al Wahaibi to third. There are smiles all around, but you can bet there were a few teeth gritting, too.

"There are some amazing names here," says Holdsworth. "To be here among it all is pretty cool. It's friendly competition. But we all want to win."