x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

My Car: Already a champion, this FJ Cruiser has more miles to go

Dave Mabb's heavily modified FJ Cruiser is a winner of the Baja 1000, and will be competing in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

For the Desert Challenge veteran Dave Mabbs the risks - he broke his back six months ago - and the costs of racing are worth it. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
For the Desert Challenge veteran Dave Mabbs the risks - he broke his back six months ago - and the costs of racing are worth it. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

"I don't think of the danger, although I know I probably should do. When my co-driver Tim Ansell was airlifted out of the car with a broken back in 2008, I thought about it then. I thought about it when I was in hospital six months ago with my own broken back from a motorcycle accident. Then, the doctors told me never to get into a race car again, but I just can't stop."

Before the 2011 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, Dave Mabbs is clearly not thinking about his own safety. In fact, he is more concerned with getting everything together and ready in time. He's just had a new gearbox installed in his standard Toyota FJ Cruiser, and he is in the middle of making preparations for his pit crew's arrival from the UK as well as getting everything together for Team FJ's journey to Al Gharbia for five days of tortuous racing.

Englishman Mabbs is a Desert Challenge veteran, who was involved in his first race in 1999. And then, after eight years of racing a Land Rover, he found this FJ in the United States, snapped it up and has been rallying with it since 2008.

"It was a preproduction model from Toyota and was given to a race team in the United States to compete in the Baja 1000 all the way through California and Mexico. It's the premier event of the American race season and it won its class first time out.

"Eventually, it was put up for sale and I bought it and brought it over here to race it. It was to replace a Land Rover, which I'd spent years developing and building.

"If I added up everything I spent on racing, I would probably have a couple of nice houses somewhere and wouldn't have to worry about anything. We have a great advantage living here in the UAE because there are word-class events happening right on our doorstep, where the cost of running a car is probably 50 per cent of the cost of running a car in Europe. For me, making the most of these opportunities is something I have to do over the time I have here."

Mabbs, whose ambition is to race the Dakar once he can find someone to help with the budget, has big plans with the car this year. He is looking to repeat Team FJ's performance in 2009, when he came first in class and fifth overall. To achieve this, he says you have to have both car and tactics ready before the race.

His focus for the car has been on its suspension. "For me, suspension is one of the biggest factors for having a successful car," says Mabbs. "Because we don't run a powerful engine - we can't afford the cost of building a race engine - the rest of the car makes up for it. We haven't done anything to improve the engine, although we've moved it from where it usually sits to about 300mm back in the chassis. This makes for better weight distribution, and it means we have no problem with approach angles.

"The front axle is standard but all the long-travel suspension was specially made in the US, where the car was originally built. The gearbox is standard and the front differential is standard. We've stripped as much weight off as possible. There's a roll cage built all the way into the chassis, which is also what the suspension mounts on.

"We don't have a windscreen. We were the first team to race here in the UAE without a windscreen. In America, doing it like that is standard, but nobody does it here. People told us we were mad with all the dust but it's the most comfortable way to race - we don't feel the effects of the heat. Normally, the ambient temperature in an enclosed cabin is in the mid-40s and you've got the engine just a few inches in front of you. Here, we're nice and cool and the dust comes in and leaves straight away. After a race, I feel refreshed."

In terms of tactics, Mabbs says he has learnt his lesson from last year, when Team FJ's 16th place result came a long way behind his class win and overall fifth position in 2009. "The Desert Challenge is a race of attrition, and the art is not to get stuck, not to get lost and not to break down.

"You don't need to drive at top speed every time and you can still come in and get a good result. We have find a good pace that is not so fast that you run the risk of breaking everything in the car. Last year, I pushed very hard and we broke the car in a couple of days. The year before, we were steadier and achieved our best result ever.

"We want to do that again this time. We know the desert very well so we're hoping for a good result."