x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The launch of the new local motorsport season has raised questions about ways to improve Emirati participation and how to ensure a promising future for regional racing, writes Gary Meenaghan.

A race marshal waves off go kart drivers as they take off for the practice round while competing in the Ramadan Super Prix Challenge at the Al Ain Raceway Track in Al Ain. Abdullah Suleiman Al Rawahi (11) won the tournament, followed by his brother Sanad Suleiman al Rawahi. Silvia Razgova / The National
A race marshal waves off go kart drivers as they take off for the practice round while competing in the Ramadan Super Prix Challenge at the Al Ain Raceway Track in Al Ain. Abdullah Suleiman Al Rawahi (11) won the tournament, followed by his brother Sanad Suleiman al Rawahi. Silvia Razgova / The National

DUBAI // Mohammed ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, launched the new local motorsport season on Tuesday, sparking debate into ways to improve Emirati participation and exploit the promise seen in regional racing.

The 2013/14 season will start on October 4 with Round 1 of the Rotax Max Challenge at Al Ain Raceway’s international kart circuit. A month later will see the jewel in the calendar’s crown, the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prixat Yas Marina Circuit.

This route, from karting to F1, is the primary focus of the national motorsport authority this season as the UAE continues its quest to produce an Emirati driver capable of competing at an elite level. Karting has long been seen as the traditional starting point for a career in F1 with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel all beginning their careers in karts.

“We’ve developed an infrastructure for UAE motorsport that allows drivers entering karting at the age of eight to develop their skills and progress through single-seater and touring car events towards grand prix racing, which is the ultimate goal,” Ben Sulayem said.

The national karting championship of the UAE is the Rotax Max Challenge, which this year will see participants contest an expanded five-round calendar, including an inaugural round in Oman.

Guy Sheffield, general manager of Al Ain Raceway, was joined at yesterday’s launch event by representatives of each of the other three UAE-based karting venues and proclaimed the Emirates as having “some of the best karting facilities in the world”.

Attracting youths to take part in karting series remains the challenge with Sheffield and Carl Rolaston of AUH Motorsports both imploring local stakeholders to show more interest in a bid to garner publicity and sponsorships.

Rolaston also suggested local culture was being overlooked when organising events to take place on Fridays.

“I don’t think we recognise the local culture enough,” Rolaston said. “Fridays are traditionally a day to be spent with family, so when we are asking guys to qualify for races on a Friday, we are automatically putting up a barrier because even people who want to come into the sport face family pressures because they need to spend Fridays with families.”

Ben Sulayem said he is willing to speak with relevant parties to help improve the situation, while the Formula Gulf 1000 series offers a relatively economical stepping stone between karting and international racing. Barry Hope, managing partner of Gulf Sport Racing, said the single-seater series requires a budget of about US$75,000 (Dh275,475) compared to Formula Renault 2.0, which can cost up to $200,000.

“Another key point is that [Formula Gulf 1000] offers a level playing field,” Hope said. “We run all the cars, the cars are identical, nobody touches the cars or set-ups, the only thing that matters is the driver’s skill. The best driver on the day is the driver who deserves to win.”

Ben Sulayem, a 14-time Middle East Rally champion, has watched with interest as Emirati drivers have started to show prominence in international racing, including rally, drag racing, powerboats and endurance events. He joked that Mohammed Al Balooshi, the Red Bull-sponsored motocross rider who holds an unprecedented four Arab championships titles, may soon be looking to eclipse his own record.

“Our priority is to make sure that the dramatic growth we have seen in UAE motorsport in recent years is sustainable,” said Ben Sulayem, who is also a vice-president of world motorsport governing body FIA. “It’s our duty to recognise and support the huge investment in motor sport made by the government and to work hard to attract and develop more young local drivers — in the process growing the interest of the UAE people.”

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

Key UAE Motorsport dates

October 4 Round One of Rotax Max Challenge, Al Ain (karting)

October 11 Round One of the inaugural UAE Desert Championship (rally)

November 1-3 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Formula One)

November 28-30 Dubai International Rally

January 9-11 24Hrs of Dubai (Touring Cars / Endurance)

March 21 Round 11 of Rotax Max Challenge, Muscat, Oman (karting)

April 4-10 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (Endurance)