x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

UAE pair go the distance in Dakar Rally

Last month, Abdullah al Huraiz and Khalid Ahmad Bilal Abdulla became the first all-Arab pairing to compete in the prestigious Brazilian event and complete it on their first attempt.

Abdullah al Huraiz, centre, with his co-driver Khalid Ahmad Bilal Abdulla, left, hopes to secure outside funding to run the Dakar again next year.
Abdullah al Huraiz, centre, with his co-driver Khalid Ahmad Bilal Abdulla, left, hopes to secure outside funding to run the Dakar again next year.

Last month, Nasser al Attiyah became the first Arab to win the Dakar Rally, generally regarded as the world's most arduous motorsport event.

The Qatari driver crossed the line in Buenos Aires nearly an hour clear of his nearest rival after 13 stages and almost 10,000 kilometres.

But al Attiyah's celebration is far from the only one from the region after Abdullah al Huraiz and Khalid Ahmad Bilal Abdulla, both from the UAE, became the first all-Arab pairing to compete in the prestigious event and complete it on their first attempt.

Paired in a Toyota Land Cruiser 120, they finished a highly creditable 26th place and fourth in class in an event renowned for its high attrition rate - in the car category alone 50 crews were forced to pull out.

Looking back on the event, al Huraiz is still full of pride at having completed the course.

"The event was so sweet," he says, reflecting on his marathon achievement. "For me to just compete was a dream come true, but to finish it on my first attempt is even more of a dream."

Just getting to the starting line was a major challenge for the 34-year-old from Dubai, who struggled to raise the necessary sponsorship funds required to compete and was forced to dig into his own pockets to realise his dream.

In all, he spent more than US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million) to compete, which included entry fees and the rental and running of his Toyota from Patrice Lardeau, a Frenchman with 27 years of Dakar experience.

Looking back at his slightly reduced bank balance, al Huraiz insists: "It was expensive, but despite the cost it was still worth it for me. I had been saving this money for lots of things, but I found my dream and decided to put my money towards it.

"I had a great time and the ambition is to go back, although not with my money. I can't afford to do it again and I desperately need sponsors."

Sponsors in Dubai were reluctant to back the UAE duo despite their best efforts. He adds: "I was trying to get sponsors in Dubai and I just couldn't get anything. Patrick is trying to get sponsors in France now for me for next year, so we will see.

"I know he was happy with how I drove. He told the organisers in front of me that every evening he just had to spend one hour working on the car, as I usually returned it exactly as it was at the start of the day."

The most challenging phases for the Land Cruiser were the desert sections, which forced many of the competitors to withdraw from the event.

But al Huraiz, who has a lot of experience driving off-road in the desert, excelled in that phase of the race.

"The other competitors ended up calling me the 'fox in the desert'," he says with pride. "On the mud and mountain stages, 10, sometimes 20, cars would come flying past me, as I didn't want to take a big risk and make a mistake that would end our rally. My key was just to finish the Dakar.

"But when it came to the desert, most people didn't know how to drive it and we'd pass a lot of guys stuck or turned over. The problem was they didn't know how to control their engines and they gave it too much power. The key was simply to keep the car as cool as possible."

While he was something of a Dakar expert when it came to the desert conditions, al Huraiz admitted to being very much a novice concerning the rest of the event.

Thankfully, though, he was able to rely on the expertise of the eventual winner, al Attiyah.

"We talked to him every day and got an update from him every day," explains al Huraiz. "It was more my co-driver, as he knows him better and we tried to keep the conversation to three minutes a day, since it's obviously very stressful for him being on the Dakar because there's a lot to concentrate on.

"But what was good was that each day he could brief us on what the next stage would entail."

The stages forced the drivers to clock as many as 960km a day; al Huraiz was behind the wheel for 13 hours a day and slept between four and six hours a night in bivouacs by his rented car, leaving him both mentally and physically exhausted by the race's end.

"I came home and I just slept, slept, slept for so many hours," he says. "I took a flight from Brazil to Dubai and slept straight through for nine hours. And every time I stopped I could just sleep.

"We had two days in Buenos Aires after the rally, but I couldn't sleep because I was just so shocked to have finished it, and each time I woke up I was thinking about driving the car.

"Even now when I get up for work in the morning I think about how fast I can get my race suit back on. It takes a while to get back to normal life."

Al Huraiz, whose children are nine, five and nearly one, earns his living through several business ventures. "I have different factories," he explains. "I have a company for airbrush designing for motorbikes and boats. And also I look after factories for my family that my late father set up, like a water-heater factory and one making aluminium eating utensils ... and an LPG fuelling plant."

Al Huraiz's family is happy to have him back safely, because the rally has claimed a number of lives since its 1978 premiere.

His wife and sister tracked him during each stage on the event's website, while his mother took an alternative approach. "All the family were very supportive, but my mother stayed very quiet, and I know was worried for me," he adds.

Al Huraiz's passion for motorsport dates back to when he was studying in the United States, from 1994 to 1999, and got involved in drag racing.

"Motorsport is my love," he points out. "Other people like nightclubs and stuff like that, but I don't like nightclubs. For me, my fun comes from motorsport. The drag racing was great, and the rallying is a newer passion.

"I started doing off-road back in 2006, and then first properly watched the Dakar on television the following year. In 2009, again I saw it on TV, last year I missed it and this year I was on the starting line."

Al Huraiz has been bitten by the off-road rallying bug and is considering racing in an event in Russia later this year.

But his mind is still on the magic of the Dakar Rally and all of the adventures that he had.

"It is such a special event," he says. "I remember clearly the first part from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, which was maybe 150 miles long, and there must have been a million people watching along the route.

"The crowds were amazing, and they would try to camp where we were just to get a glimpse of the rally. The spectators were very special people, very nice, and were happy to see us in their country.

"And the way the Dakar worked, your nationality didn't matter. It didn't matter if you were from Dubai, Japan, the USA ... everyone was treated just the same."

And al Huraiz knows where he wants to be in the winter of next year.

"I want to do the Dakar next year with more experience," he says. "That's the aim ... we'll see."