x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Given a dusting down at the Dubai International Rally

Rookie spectator Osman Samiuddin finds rally driving to his liking, even as he gets some sand in his face.

Qatar's Nasser Al Attiyah led in the Dubai International Rally today but was challenged by the Emirati drivers. Courtesy Dubai International Rally
Qatar's Nasser Al Attiyah led in the Dubai International Rally today but was challenged by the Emirati drivers. Courtesy Dubai International Rally

'Try to eat some dust' was about the gist of this assignment, covering the Dubai International Rally. I am proud to report that I did at the very first opportunity, standing not 10 feet away from Nasser Al Attiyah as he tore into a hairpin bend on Stage 4 of the rally at Al Dhaid.

It looks better than it reads but Al Attiyah, leading overnight, fairly tore into the bend; he must have actually accelerated into this 180 degree turn – on non-road remember – and generated so much dust it looked like debris from an explosion. Both the cameraman I was travelling with and I got struck by stray pebbles and were, temporarily, lost to each other in the dust, standing two feet apart.

Only a few of the other drivers generated nearly as much - Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi among them – and in this discovery Al Attiyah's mastery of this terrain was clear, even to the uninitiated. He would agree later after winning the rally for the sixth consecutive time, and eighth overall, that Dubai was almost like a second home.

My companions, rally circuit hardcores, had alerted me on the drive over: "You'll be surprised when you see Nasser," because, they said, he was so obviously expert at navigating the course. Sheikh Abdullah had said it too, on the first day, that Al Attiyah's experience was greater than most drivers in the rally combined. "He doesn't get out of the rally car ever," my companion said, and he is racing nearly 250 days of the year.

Is it really sport if nobody is watching it? Rallies around the world are well-broadcast, perhaps not as much as they used to be, but still comprehensively enough. Some rallies attract huge spectators as well though the specific nature of the course of the Dubai International Rally, across desert terrain well outside Dubai, means spectators were few; there could not have been, in fact, more than a group of 20 scattered across the three stages.

There is no need to ask them why they have come so far out to watch because that is assumed. Following it in the flesh is the domain only of the most committed motorhead; two brothers from Dubai were agreed that rally driving is a far superior pursuit than circuit racing.

There is the usual spurt of adrenalin, the fuel of all motorsport fandom, as cars come past minutes after another. But it is in between when there is nothing but the scene and day to contemplate, that the reality of rally driving presents itself.

Despite the essentially machined nature of all motorsport, there is something especially elemental about rally driving, off-road at speeds where any number of things could and often do go wrong. That is without even getting to the mechanical problems the cars may face, as found out Kuwait's Abdulaziz Al Kuwari, who was in line for a second-place finish on the last stage, only for a broken alternator to scupper his hopes.

It is, as Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi had described it days before this rally, a different buzz altogether, a more gruelling test of driving, human, skills. Who, for example, could have guessed that they would have to deal with rain on Friday, an unexpected and slightly surreal additional obstacle?

Today was, thankfully, a perfect day for it. Long blue skies revealed a finite horizon, desert shrubbery oppressed by nature, speckled across the land. It was so clear that, unlike Friday, you could easily see in the distance, the cars making their way towards the ideal spectator spots – at hairpin curves and uneven terrain where, potentially, cars could take off in the air for a bit, and by little pools of collected water, where they could splash through – trails of dust in their wake.

Despite Al Attiyah's experience, today was a good day for the Emirati presence in the field and a little rueful reminder of what might have been had it not been for the mishaps – and maybe weather – of Friday. Sheikh Abdullah's experience – and Al Kuwari's retirement on the last stage – saw him into second place overall in the rally and he was one of only two drivers other than Al Attiyah to win a stage at all.

The other was Sheikh Khalid, who had retired from the rally on Friday, but used the day, effectively, to gain some more mileage in his comeback. The brothers challenged Al Attiyah throughout, one of them finishing fastest or second-fastest in every stage today.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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