Tyre to tarmac and door to door, we experience the thrill of racing with a new, affordable series.
Suzuki Swift Cup - a race series you can afford
No matter how much you read about motorsport, no matter how many races you watch on TV, no matter how many revving cars you hold your fingers in your ears for, you will never really know what auto racing is all about until you actually get behind the wheel. You will never quite grasp what cold tyres really mean, or that thrill of being on the cusp of control, or the elation of a well-timed pass.
Unfortunately, motorsport is not what you'd call an inexpensive pastime. For many, the cost alone is the single reason why they will never trade some paint with competitors on a track. But a new "arrive and drive" race series in the UAE has opened the door for wannabe race car stars - including myself.
The Suzuki Swift Cup, operated by Zengo Motorsport in Dubai, is a one-make series where just about everything needed to race is supplied by the organisers - fuel, tyres, mechanics who set up the cars and, of course, the little hatchbacks themselves, complete with a stripped-out interior, slick tyres and a roll cage, among other modifications. A driver who wants to do the whole seven-weekend series fronts up Dh66,000; it's not exactly small change, but in the world of motorsport, it's difficult to find anything even remotely as inexpensive - or as simple.
OK, it's not quite as simple as "arrive and drive"; to compete in any organised racing, you need a race licence, issued here by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and sanctioned by the FIA, the international motorsport association.
My first step was a driving test at the Yas Marina Circuit, which I pass, but I leave there not just with a certificate but some excellent tips that will help me later on.
The passing grade, along with a medical checkup and a background check to the auto club of my home country, is enough for the licence. And as I walked out of the auto club with my card in hand, I realised that there are fewer things cooler, in a Steve McQueen kind of way, than having a racing licence; it's like being in a macho private club.
You know another thing that's cool about racing? Fireproof underwear. Competing on track means following strict rules set out by the FIA that include your garb. I managed to borrow a helmet, Hans device and a pair of overalls (complete with sponsorship logos to make me feel just a little more professional). But I opted to buy the socks, underwear, balaclava and boots, all made of flameproof Nomex as per FIA mandate. Because you never know when you'll need fireproof underwear again.
Thursday: practice day at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi. It's my first time walking into a circuit as a competitor instead of as a spectator, and I couldn't help but feel a little nervous and intimidated. I really had no idea how I would do on track; I've had experience driving cars at various circuits, and I've done a bit of karting, but I've never been door-to-door with other cars at high speed. Well, not counting Sheikh Zayed Road, of course.
The Swift Cup garage is abuzz in activity as the cars and drivers slowly start to trickle in. I meet Sean Stevens; he's a driving instructor at the Dubai Autodrome and the series' marketing and sporting director. He won't be around the garage much today; he's been offered a seat in the Radical car races, part of the UAE National Race Day that's going on.
But no worry; as the practice time approaches, I meet and talk with some of the other eight drivers and find a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Some have prior racing experience, but some, such as Klaus Kresnik, a Swiss expat and a sales specialist with Symantec (which also sponsors the series, along with Kahn Graphics), have not raced before this season. For Kresnik, the Swift Cup is an entry into a sport he has wanted to try for a long time.
"My dream has always been to compete in a championship. Then we were here for the GT1 race last year, and we saw this. It's an affordable championship, and this helps you to see if you really like it. Sometimes you're enthusiastic about racing, then you go out and buy a race car and then you think it's not for you. But this is a good way to find out if you like it and if you have the speed."
I have a mild case of the jitters as we're waved out into the pit lane and on track for practice. But just in the first warm-up laps, I'm impressed with the car; it's very, very easy to drive. It's well balanced, nimble in the corners and the braking is surprisingly good. I feel comfortable, and after I'm in the pits I find out that I have the fastest times of the day. I didn't know it at the time, but that would be the start of an emotional roller coaster over the weekend.
Friday morning, we weigh in - to make things fair with cars that only have 130hp, each driver must weigh a minimum of 100kg, which means I get about 20kg worth of ballast. Ugh.
No matter; another great session, and I get P1 for the first race. I'm excited and full of confidence, but my roller coaster has just peaked at the first hill, and it's on its way down.
The race starts not so well, with the second-place car getting in front right away at the standing start. But I'm on his tail - up until turn six, when I spin on cold tyres and end up right at the back. And this highlights the difference between racing and just going fast - consistency is just as important as all-out speed.
Make a mistake in qualifying and you just concentrate on the next lap. But make a mistake in a race, even a small mistake, and it will cost you immensely. Going wide in a turn, missing a shift or a loss of control will either have the racers behind you breathing down your neck - if they don't outright pass you - or the ones in front pull away. And in a seven-lap race, it's likely you've lost your chance at a good finish. As I just did.
I claw my way back to fifth place, and I'm happy with that, all things considered. I stay on pole for the second race and have a worse start: I miss a shift into third gear and immediately have five other cars sail past me. I finish in eighth place, and realise that my focus is letting me down. So much for speed.
Regardless of the mistakes, it was fantastic fun; no matter what position I was in, there was always a fight. The competition is very close whichever end of the pack you find yourself on, and there's nothing quite as exciting as banging doors with another car in the middle of a turn. It's proper racing, and it's an absolute thrill.
At the end of the long straight, the cars aren't going much faster than 160kph; that will get you a rear-view mirror full of flashing headlights on Sheikh Zayed Road. But the low horsepower is a blessing in disguise, especially if you are new to the sport.
"You really have to learn how to keep the car going fast in the corner; you don't have the horsepower to save you from a mistake," says Stevens in between races. He nods to the powerful, two-seat race cars he's driving today to make a point about the value of the Swift Cup.
"Often, you will have executives who buy a ride with the Radicals and then go out and be 10 seconds off the pace. They'd be embarrassed, and they'd quietly quit.
"But this is better to teach the racing craft. And that benefits these guys" - as he points to the GT and Radical race teams in the paddock - "because it gets people interested in racing and trained properly, and they can move up to the bigger cars."
I'm sure seeing that learning curve. It's humbling, but I realise that racing is not something you just do well from the beginning; it takes practice and experience. But my roller coaster is on its way up again.
There was a problem with my car in the second race that limited my speed on the straights, so the mechanics fiddle with the fuel injection and change some parts. I'm starting eighth on the grid, and I don't mind - less pressure. But with fewer mistakes (I said "fewer mistakes", not "no mistakes") I manage an exciting drive to finish third, a podium spot on my first race weekend. (Kresnik won the race, his second win of the day.) The stands are empty as I take the bottom step of the podium - they came for the fast cars - but I don't care. I'm elated at the result, relieved that I found some success - and absolutely yearning for more.
If you want to find your inner Andretti, check out www.suzukicup.ae. I'm hoping to race again, and I'd love to see you out there - in my rear-view mirror.