x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Appeal of pure racing behind the love for karting

Karting gives the best thrill according to drivers who took part in the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals at Al Ain Raceway.

Drivers and mechanics from 57 different countries took part in the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals at Al Ain Raceway.
Drivers and mechanics from 57 different countries took part in the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals at Al Ain Raceway.

Ayrton Senna won three Formula One world championships, took the chequered flag in 41 races and claimed 65 pole positions during an outstanding career in the top echelon of motorsport that was cut short by his death in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

The Brazilian raced against some of F1's greats and won at such classic venues as Monte Carlo, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps, but one of the most fascinating things to come out of Senna, a documentary film made on his life last year, was his answer when asked in a press conference which driver had given him the most satisfaction to race against.

Rather than naming someone such as Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, or Nelson Piquet, all F1 world champions with whom he enjoyed fierce rivalries, he said his favourite opponent was Terry Fullerton, a Briton he had raced against in karts in Europe in the late 1970s during his early years in motorsport.

Senna could not hide his love for his days of racing karts, as he said: "It was pure driving, pure racing. There was not any politics then. No money either. It was real racing."

There were 264 drivers in the UAE last week who could emphasise with Senna's passion for karting as the 12th annual Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals were held at Al Ain Raceway, with large crowds wowed by wheel-to-wheel racing, with grids of up to 34 karts all driving within a few tenths of a second of each other.

A visual sight to behold at the facility was inside a large tent, put up especially for the weekend, which housed the majority of the 264 karts racing, with drivers, mechanics, and friends and family creating a sea of colour as they wore their different overalls and shirts from their country.

Competitors from 57 nations competed at Al Ain as it became the focal point of world karting for the week, with the event finishing on Saturday with four new world champions crowned.

While the majority of the racers were below the age of 20 and have ambitions of using karting as a stepping stone to race in more powerful single-seater cars, and possibly being one of the lucky few to race in F1, some are in it purely for the enjoyment factor.

Maurits Knopjes was the most successful member of the UAE team who raced in Al Ain, finishing seventh in the DD2 Masters category, a competition for drivers over the age of 32.

The 39-year-old Dutchman, who lives in Dubai, has had a successful karting career, winning four UAE Rotax Max Championship titles, but he has also raced cars as well.

So why does he continue to race a 32.6 horsepower kart when he could be driving more powerful machinery?

He grinned as he stood by his kart during preparations for one of the races at the grand finals, and almost replicated Senna in his response.

"It is the purest form of racing," he said. "Even [Michael] Schumacher [the seven-time F1 champion] still does a lot of kart races.

"Why? It is so pure. It is so much more fun I think than doing cars. It is the best thrill, speed, sensation, that you can get.

"Driving a touring car or a Porsche Cup car it is so boring [compared to karting]."

Arnaud Bouf, who also raced in the DD2 Masters, finishing 26th overall, uses the thrill of racing karts as a chance to forget the demands of work for a few hours every weekend.

The 39 year old, who is the general manager at the Carrefour store in Ajman, said: "Day to day you have work and pressure so this is a good way to relieve the pressure."

The Frenchman enjoys the increasing level of competition in the UAE, adding: "The grid is beginning to get bigger and bigger in Dubai and Al Ain so it is really developing.

"There are always new guys coming and challenging you so it is fun."

But for sheer commitment to karting, it is hard to look past the Al Rawahi family in Oman.

Brothers Abdullah and Sanad Al Rawahi both competed in the Rotax Max finals. Abdullah, 14, took part in the Junior Max category and Sanad, 16, in the Senior Max.

Both are supported by their father, Suleiman, who has driven his boys from their home in Muscat to every race in the Rotax Max Championship in the UAE since their local track was closed following an accident, causing them to have to cast their eye further afield to race.

"They enjoy it, I enjoy it and it is something we enjoy doing together," Suleiman said of how the family got involved in karting.

"The kids are very committed. They love the sport. We live in Oman. Every weekend or two weekends I have to drive to here, Dubai or Abu Dhabi, depending on where the race is. But it is worth it to see them compete and do something they love."

While few of the people racing at Al Ain last week are likely to get close to the career Senna had, the love of racing and competition is the element most shared with the Brazilian great.

Mohammed Al Dhaheri, the Emirati driver, who competed in the DD2 category last week for the UAE, said: "It is the racing, just competing and testing yourself that I enjoy. I love doing this."

gcaygill@thenational.ae