Maserati's stock is soaring in the region, and the Trident's petrolhead managing director Umberto Cini is the driver for developments.
Trofeo race series put Maserati on the fast track in Middle East
Umberto Cini eats, lives and breathes Maserati. As managing director for the famed Italian marque's Middle East and Africa operations you might expect that, but this guy is far from being your stereotypical lobotomised company boss. In fact, he's just climbed out of a race car after taking part in round three of Maserati's Trofeo Middle East contest, barely a week after getting his race licence. Nobody could accuse him of simply being a yes man - he's putting the machines Maserati is building through their paces in the best possible way and, after this first of two races at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on this day, he's come in at a respectable eighth place out of 12.
He's elated, and who could blame him? Racing at this level is extremely demanding and his fellow competitors, while friendly enough off the track, take no prisoners once they're out there battling for first place. But there's more behind the smile than having put in a decent performance during his first race - the fact is that Maserati is doing incredibly well in this part of the world and much of that is down to his unwavering passion for this most revered of luxury car manufacturers and, to be fair, the fact that Maserati is building the best cars in its long and distinguished history.
Cini has been in charge of the region since 2007 and the growth in sales since he accepted the role has been quite incredible. Between 2006 and 2011 they have increased by 125 per cent, meaning that sales here now make up six per cent of the company's global total.
However, it's nothing compared to what Cini - and Maserati as a whole - has planned for the future, but more on that later. For now, he's content that the significant investment Maserati has made by bringing the Trofeo race series to the Middle East has paid off quite handsomely. "Whether or not this is a coincidence remains to be seen," he says, "but we cannot keep up with demand in the showrooms. Customers used to be able to walk in and say they wanted a Maserati, choose from the available stock and drive away. But not since we started the Trofeo here."
The company and motor racing go way back - as far as December 1914 when the six Maserati brothers founded the company to build engines for competition cars in Bologna, Italy, and Maserati went on to design and build some of the most successful and beautiful race cars of all time. Heritage seeps from Maserati's pores and it was perhaps inevitable that it would make a return to racing, but the production models (the four-door Quattroporte and the slinky GranTurismo GT car) hardly scream "track day warrior". They're big, heavy, comfortable and extremely refined - the epitome of luxury motoring. But that hasn't stopped the GTs from being pressed into service; stripped-out, lowered and stiffened - and very, very noisy.
The Trofeo series pays homage to the history of Maserati by turning the gorgeous GranTurismo into a rip-snorting race car: the GranTurismo MC Trofeo. "They're built on the same production lines as the cars we sell in the showrooms," says Cini. "And anyone can take part in this, even if they don't yet have a race licence, because we'll train them from the very start." Anyone sufficiently well enough at heel to be able to stump up Dh495,750 for a full season, that is. But that's the appeal - it's a way for people who are otherwise extremely busy in their professional lives to take part in a serious motorsport without the headaches of running a support team and everything that comes with it. They simply have to turn up and drive, with Maserati providing all the support you could wish for. It's a sport; a hobby for the wealthy, and it's proving to be very popular judging by the number of people here today.
This isn't a unique service, as Porsche does something similar - even the Suzuki Swift Cup is arrive-and-drive: paying punters turn up at the venue, are provided with a car, tyres and garage facilities, and race the day away. It's not cheap, whoever you choose to do this with, but motor racing never is. Even in a Suzuki.
Cini admits that, unlike Porsche, Maserati doesn't offer road cars such as the 911 GT3RS, which is basically a road-legal racing car. "It's not what our road cars are about. The GranTurismo MC Stradale is about as close as you can get to a road-going Trofeo but, unlike the GT3s of this world, you can actually use it every single day because it's still refined and comfortable but it comes available with a roll cage, bucket seats and harnesses if you want them. And it's still exciting to drive." He's right - after spending a couple of days with one recently, it became the Maserati I'd spend my own money on if I had it.
"With the Trofeo in the Middle East," he continues, "we are highlighting the heritage of Maserati in front of people who often are not aware we are closely connected to racing. It's still in its early stages but it's definitely working. The cars we see racing here today are closely related to our road cars - they share much of the same DNA. But if [the road cars] were as extreme as these then that everyday usability would not be there." Media exposure is, he says, vital when it comes to getting this message out, and the coverage is overwhelmingly positive. "What many people don't realise, though, is that there's more to this than simply racing a car around a track. There is a full range of hospitality whenever we do this, which caters not just for the drivers but for their families, friends and colleagues." As he mentions this, I spy the children's entertainment section in the suite that overlooks Yas Marina's pit lane and it's full of youngsters trying their hands at virtual racing in front of a huge screen while others play slot-car racing - their fathers may have just crashed or won the race for real and they'd be none the wiser. They're way too busy having their own fun.
For the long-suffering wives of drivers seeking glory on the podium, there's always the excellent spa facilities at Yas Marina's Viceroy hotel, just a short walk away from the ear-splitting on-track action. It seems everything has been thought of and catered for, and the sense of camaraderie I feel here is one I haven't felt before at any race event. "We want our customers to experience the luxury of Maserati in every possible way," says Cini.
And what of the future? According to Cini, Maserati has plans to increase its production ten-fold in the next few years. "We recently announced our intention to reach annual production of 50,000 cars," he says. "Currently, we are at 5,000, so obviously there will be a change within the brand." And that obviously points us in the direction of the controversial Kubang SUV. Will Maserati manage to maintain its air of exclusivity if it's building thousands of Kubangs every year? "Hey," quips Cini, "it didn't harm Porsche and they're aiming for 200,000. We're still talking half their existing volume."
The cynics may sneer, but the unwavering belief of this man in this company is enough to convince me: Maserati is here to stay. And that has to be a good thing. With that, he climbs back into his car for the next race and, over the next half hour, battles his way to fifth place. A podium finish next time? I wouldn't be surprised.