x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Out of the shadows

Like F1 cars, Indy Cars and even karts, Radical sports cars are made for the thrills of the track, not the grind of Emirates Road.

Tim Murdoch, a race mechanic from the UK, wheels David Field's SR5 Radical sports car back into the pits at Dubai Autodrome. The SR5 is one of four classes of racer that competes in the Gulf Radical Cup.
Tim Murdoch, a race mechanic from the UK, wheels David Field's SR5 Radical sports car back into the pits at Dubai Autodrome. The SR5 is one of four classes of racer that competes in the Gulf Radical Cup.

"They're the only proper race cars racing in Dubai," says Barry Hope, managing director of GulfSport Racing, of the Radical sports cars that race each year in the Gulf Radical Cup. He does not mean any disrespect to the touring cars and Speedcars that share the Dubai Autodrome's annual track racing season, but the fact is the Radicals are machines built for the sole purpose of motorsport - the touring cars and Speedcars have road car pedigrees instead. Like F1 cars, Indy Cars and even karts, Radicals are made for the thrills of the track, not the grind of Emirates Road.

But the public awareness of these photogenic little powerhouses is in need of a serious boost. "We've had a great season with some great races and we want the public to get behind it," says Hope. A basic education as to what Radicals are all about might be the first step. The racers come in four classes, the smallest being the PR6 with a 200hp engine and a single seat. Among the two-seaters, the SR3 has a 250hp motorcycle engine, the SR5 has a 2.0L Honda car engine and the SR8 has a 2.6L V8 engine.

The cars have sequential gearboxes with clutches, some with paddleshifters and others with a stick shifter. The recent success of two UAE-based drivers in the Radical Euro Masters has the potential to make for a very interesting Gulf Radical grid when the season starts again in October. Canadian Bassam Kronfli and Christophe Hissette, his Belgian co-driver, have made a solid start to the European series, winning their SR3 class in a race in Barcelona, Spain, and then coming fifth in their class on the Spa track in Belgium during a rain-soaked race.

If Kronfli and Hissette continue with their promising form, the more developed European scene might take Middle Eastern Radical racing more seriously and, ideally, European drivers could be inspired to compete in the next Dubai season. "It'd make sense - it's the European winter, it's their off-season, if you like," says Hope of the chances of seeing a few continental cars on the Dubai grid come October.

While October may seem a long way off, now is the time for UAE-based drivers to start attracting sponsors for the next season. One of the main attractions for sponsors, Hope says, is the TV coverage the Dubai Autodrome races receive. Last season, there was a regular 30-minute programme from each event that was broadcast free on Showtime, Abu Dhabi Sports, Ten Sports, MotorsTV and Sky Sports. The Gulf Radical Cup has also been featured on popular motor sports show Mobil 1: The Grid which aired globally.

With the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix creating greater local interest in motorsport, it would seem logical that the Gulf Radicals would be a support race for the main event. But Hope says he has not yet heard any word from Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM) about the Radicals racing at Yas Marina Circuit on Nov 1. If the Radicals could be involved in a curtain-raiser race at the Grand Prix, the international media exposure would be huge. However, a spokesperson for ADMM has said the final programme for the race weekend is currently undecided but says the situation is quite straightforward. "As you can imagine, there is strong interest in motorsport about being a part of the programme for the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix," the spokesperson says. "ADMM will make an announcement regarding the track programme, including support categories, at the appropriate time."

The Radical racing experience is an exciting one and, while the drivers are not professionals, their skills are very impressive and out on the track, there is plenty of action to keep fans interested. Even on a track day, there were thrills and spills. Such sessions are used to test the cars and, because the Radicals are two-seater racers, the drivers can use this time to take friends and guests for a few hair-raising laps.

David Field, a British driver based in the UAE, took me out in his SR5, decked out in the classic blue and orange colours made famous by the Gulf Oil racing team of the 1960s and 1970s. With a helmet on, I was tightly strapped into the seat, but once Field started hurling the car around the bends of the Dubai Autodrome track, it is impossible to sit tight, the g-forces tugging on my neck, my face frozen in a permanent grin.

"A slow lap," was how Field described our first lap, and then on the second lap, he pushed it closer to the top speed of 230kph and we had a spin-out on the back chicane. After an "oops, sorry", we were on our way again until we saw a plume of smoke just past the start-finish straight. Emirati driver Khalid Al Mazrooni's car had caught fire and was nowhere to be seen, so Field pulled over to survey the scene.

Much to our relief, a grinning Al Mazrooni emerged from behind a safety barrier and gave us a wave. Back in the pits, he told us of his lucky escape. "I felt something funny with the power and the gear changing and I saw smoke so I switched off the battery and ran," he said. "It's a controlled environment; we take safety precautions." The drivers are well-trained in the safety procedures for the sport and were remarkably nonchalant after the event. "Drama, huh?" shrugged Al Mazrooni as he wandered out of the pits to survey the damage to his car.

It is this cool attitude to the dangers of the sport that typifies racing drivers everywhere and keeps them returning to the track. After his brakes did not cope well with the midday heat, French driver Eric Charles maintained the laissez faire spirit. "No more brakes, brakes are important," he said drily before packing his helmet away for the day. While the drivers are not pulling in the big dollars that Formula One stars command, the scene in the pits is very professional.

Martin, one of the engineers, showed me a laptop attached to one of the SR8s and explained the data logs. The information that the car's electronics can share with the laptop helps the drivers improve their performances as well as checking up on the performance of the car. "We look for errors, we look at the temperature obviously, oil pressure, measure the revs, look at the g-force for performance," he says as he scrolls through screens of charts and diagrams.

"These statistics help develop the drivers, we compare laps, see when they brake and accelerate and change gear - up to F1, the software is fundamentally the same stuff." Before I left the track, I came across Barry Hope chatting to another driver, Jordanian Fadi Bikawi. He is considering driving a PR6 in the Al Husein Rumman Hill Climb, a race in Jordan that has been running since 1962. If he decides to take the PR6 up the Al Rumman road, it will be another great publicity boost for the Radical sports cars and their capabilities. "He certainly enjoyed the drive," said Hope of Bikawi's test in the PR6.

It is that sense of enjoyment that embodies the spirit of racing Radical sports cars - the combination of speed, skill and coming off the track with a smile, regardless of the result, keeps the drivers coming back for more, and hopefully with a few more sponsors, the crowds will fill the Dubai Autodrome's grandstands in October. glewis@thenational.ae