x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The radio stars

Whether it's on the tarmac or in the dirt, Abu Dhabi's radio-controlled car club just love to play.

Just inside Gate Eight of Sheikh Zayed Sports City, in Abu Dhabi, close to the ice rink, a group of boys meet almost every Friday morning to play with their toys. Their very expensive toys. The "boys" in question are the members of the Abu Dhabi RC Racing Club. And the toys, well they are 1:10th scale (and sometimes 1:8th scale) models of stock cars and dune-bashing desert buggies that the "boys" - I use the term advisedly as most appear to have left childhood behind some time ago - throw around the sand in Abu Dhabi and, sometimes, the track in Al Ain. The club also journey up to Dubai occasionally to race their cars around another dirt circuit but, today, they are staying on home soil, in Abu Dhabi.

Francisco Velasco is the club's chairman and a jovial host. He's only been racing for a couple of years and, like any recent convert to a new hobby, is more than a little obsessive about the cars and the club. In the brief period since he became hooked by the sport in 2007, he has galvanised this just-for-fun organisation and has written the rule book for miniature racing in Abu Dhabi. I should know, I have a copy of it, and a fine work it is.

Yes, even these little pocket rockets of the sand are subject to a set of regulations which would not look out of place in the lofty surroundings of Formula 1. And with good reason too. These racing cars can push on to 120 kilometres per hour if they have the right conditions on the track in Al Ain and 80kph in the dust of Abu Dhabi. Up until a couple of years ago, Francisco had been a weekend angler who, having moved to Abu Dhabi 17 years ago, was content to spend his spare time catching a fish or two and dreaming about the one that got away. Now he says "the fish have all gone" and he is more concerned by lap times and conditioning his precious cars.

He took up the sport to save money, he says with a wide smile on his face and more than a hint of irony. "Abu Dhabi is a very expensive city," he explains, "every time I leave my house here I end up spending money. So now, instead of going out, I stay in, watch some television and work on my cars." Francisco is obviously joking about this being some kind of money-saving hobby, as in either dune buggy or stock car form these cars retail for at least Dh7,000.

And that's just for starters - you can easily push that cost up into five figures. Francisco rummages through his spare parts box as we chat and produces a mini spark plug for his stock car which costs Dh30. If he were to buy one for the full-sized Mercedes saloon he drives by day it might cost around a third of that price. He also estimates his monthly fuel bill for his little racers is around Dh100 per car for high octane competition petrol.

Today the club are testing out their newest acquisition: a race transponder which sends lap times and race position data back from the cars up to a linked laptop allowing Junapua, another member of the club, to call the race. During the first practice session on this Friday morning Junapua sits peering at his PC, watching it spit out data. For all the world he looks like Ron Dennis or any of the other F1 team principals nervously watching banks of telemetry screens on race day.

The cars meanwhile are scuttling around the dirt track and hurtling over jumps. The noise emitted from their tiny engines is like ducks being gently strangled. One driver slightly overcooks a jump and sends his car fully two metres in the air before it lands messily, bumping and cartwheeling across the ground. The little car finally comes to rest with its wheels pointing skyward like a stricken cockroach before its owner runs across the dirt to flip it back into life. For a sport involving remote controls it is surprisingly physical.

Free practice is over a few minutes later and club member Ezra won the session. He started "driving" in 1999 and can put his off-roader into a slide, quite literally, at the touch of a button. Another member Ryan stands nearby; he is currently the best racer in Abu Dhabi - he won the club's championship last season - and has been racing since the mid-1990s. And then there is Quang, a boisterous new member of the club who is the self-confessed "bad boy of the track". He wants to claim Ryan's crown and another member tells me conspiratorially: "you know Dennis Rodman, from the NBA, yeah, well Quang, he's the Rodman of our club."

There is plenty of banter knocking around in the "pits", where the air is heavy with the smell of nitrous, grease and cigarette smoke. It's clear though that the accent here is on enjoyment as well as competition. In fact, Francisco's fabled rule book signs off with the words: "This is a great hobby, enjoy it and have fun." And it's obvious that the members of his club do just that - have fun, every Friday.