x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The desert stormer

Nowhere is driving more hazardous than in the Pharaohs Rally, a race of 2,800 very tough km starting next month under the gaze of the Sphinx in Giza, and ending a week later in Cairo.

The Pharaohs Rally is the biggest event of its kind in Africa after the Dakar Rally moved to South America  and has an impressive line-up.
The Pharaohs Rally is the biggest event of its kind in Africa after the Dakar Rally moved to South America and has an impressive line-up.

I have been teaching my teenage daughter to drive recently - although teaching may be slightly overstating what I have been doing, which is sitting in the front passenger seat, gritting my teeth, and trying to make my voice sound authoritative rather than panic-stricken, as I scream at her, "Start braking now, start braking." That is the problem when you are a driver yourself, and are suddenly stripped of the controls. You need absolute confidence in your driver's reactions, and though I am the first to laud my pupil's many fine qualities, I find it difficult to maintain a cool head when I see the rear end of another vehicle looming up ahead of us.

Occasionally, she will take a bend at the kind of speed that seems destined to culminate in our clambering from a roadside ditch, abandoning the heap of mangled wreckage that used to be the family vehicle, or at the very least in a long wait at the side of the road for a recovery vehicle. This, of course, is the kind of concern navigators of rally cars have to live with every day of their competing lives, and is why, alongside boxers and jump jockeys, they are among the most courageous sports people around. When the souped up vehicle is buzzing around hairpin bends at frightening speeds, the driver knows he is in control; the navigator in the seat next to him is never quite sure.

Nowhere is this job more hazardous than in the gruelling Pharaohs Rally, a race of 2,800 very tough km starting next month under the gaze of the Sphinx in Giza, and ending a week later in Cairo. The rally takes on added significance in the motorsport world now that the Paris-Dakar event, known simply as the Dakar Rally these days, has moved to South America because of the political instability in Africa.

It means the Pharaohs Rally is now the biggest event of its kind in Africa, and has attracted an impressive line-up of top rallying talent. Herculean efforts on the part of the organisers have ensured that the course will be particularly testing. Drivers will be negotiating tracks never used before, making navigation a minefield demanding instant and accurate judgements. The cars must negotiate mile after mile of undulating sand, taking in dunes, some of which are 180 metres high. Most vehicles have spent the past three or four months being modified to cope with these gruelling conditions, and given the obvious dangers of traversing the world's largest and most unforgiving desert, all cars have been fitted with additional safety features.

Preparation will be key. I often set out on a long car journey with nothing more than a sandwich, a bottle of water, and a Steely Dan CD. I trust drivers in the Pharaohs will have put a little more thought into their supplies. One driver at least who should be well prepared is Cairo's own Mohammed Gabr, a businessman and photographer more used to snapping the sights than driving around them. Until 2007 no Egyptian driver had ever finished in the top 10 in the Pharaohs, but the sport has made great strides recently and Gabr is confident of a top 10 finish. He has been driving since 1982, financing his career largely out of his own pocket, but he says there is no thrill "like speeding through the desert." To him, I would give the same advice I gave my daughter: "Whoah, go steady. Take it easy," but what a marvellous fillip it would be for the sport in Egypt if he could win the thing.

Tennis fans in the UK areentitled to ask what on earth has happened to all the money stuffed into the coffers of Britain's Lawn Tennis Association. In case you had not noticed, Britain has slipped into the third tier of the Davis Cup, after defeat by Poland last weekend. It means they will now be pitched against the likes of such hotbeds of tennis as Lithuania and Ireland. Next stop, Vatican City. The last time they were at such a low ebb was in 1995, since when there has been significant investment in tennis. And what has 14 years of cash meant for the development of the game? Beyond Andy Murray, nothing. Maybe Britain should withdraw from the Davis Cup altogether, until they have at least one other player who can support Murray. The constant humiliation must do more harm than good when you are trying to recruit new talent.

The play-off system in rugby league in the UK and Australia has its critics, with some sports fans feeling the team that finishes top of the league should pick up the title. I disagree. I love the play-offs. The top-eight knock-outs, as in the UK's Super League, keep interest going for most clubs right till the end of the season, with the added bonus of sudden-death drama at a time when in the past you might have had a series of dead rubbers. The play-offs are heavily weighted in favour of the top two, and my view is that if they are unable to negotiate two relatively easy fixtures to get to the final, they do not deserve to be at the top of the league anyway. Of course, in the final there will be one disappointed loser. But hey, that's sport.