The governing body of the WRC voted against putting the emirate on the calendar, a move that could put the future collaborations in doubt.
The bumpy road of rallying in Abu Dhabi
This weekend marks precisely four years since the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) announced a long-term association with the World Rally Championship (WRC). It was the first indication of the emirate's intention to become a leading figure in global motorsport and was soon followed by the news that the UAE capital would host a Formula One race from 2009.
While the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has figured on the F1 calendar for two years and earned plaudits from the paddock and the public, the emirate's ambition of showcasing the region through the hosting of a four-day rally was recently denied for a second time, throwing Abu Dhabi's future relationship with the WRC into doubt.
The ADTA, having failed in 2010 with a bid to host a rally were in March invited to try again this season by Jean Todt, the president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the governing body of motorsports. The invitation was seen as recognition for the emirate's interest and substantial investment over the past four years, in which they had become the "Official Destination" of the WRC and also the title sponsor of the BP-Ford World Rally Team.
The following month, the emirate was placed on the provisional WRC calendar for 2012, meaning all that remained was gaining approval from the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC). The ADTA's confidence was bolstered by the presence of Mohammed ben Sulayem, the president of the UAE's Automobile and Touring Club (ATCUAE) and a vice-president of the WMSC. Those closely associated to the ADTA's bid spoke of the WMSC meeting as a mere formality.
Yet when the council met in Barcelona in June to ratify the provisional calendar, the emirate was dropped. The decision appeared inexplicable. Instead, the ADTA were told they first had to host a candidate round; a one-off event aimed at proving the host country was capable.
Jarmo Mahonen, the World Rally Championship Commission president, said the decision to drop Abu Dhabi from the WRC calendar was made because the event was not ready. The business plan for the emirate's inaugural rally - which was due to incorporate Yas Marina Circuit, the mountain range at Jebel Hafeet and the unforgiving Empty Quarter in Liwa - was believed to be light on structural details, with some of the roads earmarked for inclusion yet to be agreed upon.
However, the ADTA say they had enjoyed positive discussions with key stakeholders including Mahonen's WRC Commission, as well as the ATCUAE, Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management and NorthOne Sports, the company charged with promoting the WRC. The bid they finally submitted was, according to the ADTA's Dayne Lim, "highly credible and substantive".
Those close to the bid felt scorned by the WMSC decision and elected to turn down the opportunity to host a candidate event. "We respectfully decline the WMSC's invitation to run a candidate event," Lim said. "While we are naturally disappointed with the WMSC's latest decision, we are relieved that its positional flip-flopping has actually come to a conclusion and we can move on."
It is believed the emirate's tourism board have invested £25 million (Dh150m) into the sport since 2007, providing much-needed funds to a series that has seen interest dwindle in recent times. If their decision to "move on" proves a euphemism for withdrawing from the WRC, it could set the sport back several years. The ADTA's contract with BP-Ford expires at the end of the year and Lim said full and thorough evaluations of all deals will be carried out.
"The ADTA has in place a robust evaluation process, vis-à-vis our commitment in the WRC programme, and will continue to undertake the same evaluative course with respect to our future involvement," he said.
Some international media reports claim the FIA was willing to waiver the candidate event in exchange for closer control of the structure of Rally Abu Dhabi, but ben Sulayem failed to back the bid at the WMSC meeting, leaving them with no option but to reject it. Ben Sulayem, the 14-time Middle East Rally Championship winner, refutes that allegation.
"Honestly, I don't think it reached the World Motor Sport Council," he told The National. "It was decided in the WRC Commission. The file was not enough and then the promoter did not want to do a candidate or pilot event."
Ben Sulayem has long been the figurehead of the Dubai Rally, which is annually scheduled for the UAE's National Day in December, and would have coincided with the planned inaugural WRC event in the capital.
"It's very clear," he said. "The quote from the ADTA, they said they don't want to do a candidate. You have to have the candidate. Motorsports is very dangerous; unless you do the candidate, how can you run a WRC out of the box?"
The ATCUAE and the ADTA have worked together several times in the past. The emirate's tourism board has been the primary sponsor of ben Sulayem's UAE Desert Challenge since 2009, rebranding it the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and altering the structure to result in all five days of off-road racing being held in the capital rather than spread across Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Ben Sulayem said, however, hosting a round of the World Rally Championship is far more complex.
"Yes, it was disappointing that the WRC could not come here, but we have to do it the right way," he said.
"The WRC is very demanding. As the ATC, we organise the Formula One [Abu Dhabi Grand Prix] and it's difficult, but it's not as difficult as the WRC. When it comes to motorsports, you have to do it right. It's the discipline; you have to earn it. The preparation has to be right because you are representing your government, but I believe it might still come."
Whether the emirate reconsiders the offer to host a candidate remains to be seen.
However, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, the Emirati rally driver who competes in the WRC, is equally as hopeful as his compatriot. Sheikh Khalid, who was born in Sharjah, has come a long way since making his BP-Ford bow in Finland four years ago when he finished 16th. So far this year he has secured two top-10 finishes and is also crucial in the development of the trio of young Emirati drivers progressing through the Production Car WRC.
"For sure, there was a sense of disappointment when I heard the news that WRC would not be coming here," he said.
"But those thoughts changed to trying to stay positive and looking at what we can do from here, and I still believe that we can have a rally here in the future."
Much of that will depend on future negotiations between the relevant parties. Lim will be in Finland this weekend.
The ADTA and the WRC
•Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) announces partnership with WRC manufacturers, Ford. BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is formed.
• ADTA declares long-term objective to stage a round of WRC in Abu Dhabi.
•Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is chosen as the third, non points-scoring driver in new team.
•BP Ford Abu Dhabi team makes its debut at Rally Finland.
• ADTA extends its rally commitments by launching the Junior Driver Development Programme, an initiative to nurture the next generation of Emirati rally drivers.
• Two junior drivers participate in the Middle East Rally Championship and Swansea Bay Rally in Wales.
• Junior drivers debut in Ford Fiesta Sporting Trophy International series, a six-round championship dovetailing European WRC events.
• ADTA signs a five-year partnership with WRC. The emirate is named the WRC’s “Official Destination Partner”.
• ADTA bids to host a leg of the WRC calendar in 2011.
• Junior drivers are confirmed to contest the Fiesta series for a second season.
• ADTA learns the FIA has rejected its bid to host Rally Abu Dhabi in 2011.
• Junior drivers, now part of Team Abu Dhabi stable, step up to P-WRC Series.
• FIA invites ADTA to bid for round in 2012 WRC calendar.
• Abu Dhabi included on provisional WRC calendar for 2012.
• The WMSC rejects ADTA’s bid to host Rally Abu Dhabi 2012.