After just three years, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix boasts a team of marshals made up entirely of UAE residents. Kevin Hackett and Neil Vorano report.
UAE's motorsport marshals help grassroots racing scene
Barry Hope knows the local race scene here; he should, he practically invented it. Back in the late 1970s, the longtime UAE resident, formerly of the UK, began a Dubai motocross championship when there was no formalised racing to speak of.
Today he is now part owner of GulfSport, a race car company that also runs the Formula Gulf 1000 open-wheel race series. In the beginning, his motorbike races were the purest of grassroots racing, as he and his helpers had to dig out a course on an old football field for the events. Hope had a unique way of recruiting marshals for his racing.
"When I was starting to develop the motocross here, I used to make sure that the competitors were told that if they didn't bring people along to help then they wouldn't get to race. Because what happened was people would be arrogant and show up and expect everything, and we were there with a shovel and tape trying to make everything work."
Things have certainly come a long way since then in the UAE. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, on this weekend, has brought many benefits to the capital and the entire country since the first race in 2009. And that includes those to the local motorsport scene; those National Race Days and other events that go on after the circus of Formula One leaves.
"What has happened here," says Hope, "is the ATCUAE [Automobile Touring Club of the UAE] is responsible to provide marshalling for Formula One, and over the last three years they've had to put a lot of energy for providing marshals for the Grand Prix. So what we have seen because of F1 is that activity that has generated a lot of trained marshals here. That's had the biggest impact on the local scene."
Hope is right. A lot of effort certainly has been put into finding local people interested in working behind the scenes at the Abu Dhabi F1 race here at Yas Marina Circuit. Much effort has also been put forth by the ATCUAE - the governing body appointed by the FIA (the worldwide governing body for motorsports) that oversees around 140 motorsport events here every year - to include Emiratis in the mix, part and parcel of the UAE's sustainability programme to increase Emirati involvement in motorsport over the coming years, and not just in F1.
But while the sheer number of events held here throughout the year, and the variety of interests catered for, is mind-boggling, there is still a degree of apathy towards anything other than the upper echelons of F1. The 24 Hours of Dubai auto race held at the Dubai Autodrome in January was a world-class event with international involvement, but the grandstands remained practically empty. It's something close to the heart of Ronan Morgan, the ATCUAE's director and clerk of the course for the F1 meetings.
This 57-year-old Irishman has been involved with motorsport for 40 years and in the UAE for almost three decades, having been a co-driver for Mohammed Ben Sulayem in many of the rallies he competed in before Sulayem became president of the ATCUAE and vice president of the FIA. "It's the same anywhere," says Morgan. "The people of a nation only get behind a sport when one of their own starts to succeed in it. You only have to look at Spain's passion for F1, thanks to Alonso, or how the UK started getting back into it when Button and Hamilton both won the world championship. If we see an Emirati on the starting grid here, in F1, then there will be a totally different view of motorsport across the board," says Morgan.
Indeed, great strides are already being made. "For the first grand prix here three years ago, we had to bring in 350 officials and marshals from outside the UAE. We needed that help and that expertise, but it was always our goal to be self-sufficient as soon as possible. So we set a five-year plan, so that we could work towards having the event run entirely by UAE residents. Last year - two years ahead of schedule - we didn't require any outside assistance whatsoever. We have the skills right here and we're now viewed worldwide as a centre of excellence."
For this F1 race, Morgan was able to call on a pool of about 700 marshals, 15 per cent of whom are Emirati. An amazing achievement, especially considering the hurdles Hope points to on recruiting suitable marshals here - not only because of the UAE's immature racing market, but also the simple logistics of the country itself.
"If you go to Europe or North America, you have lots of retired people, which you don't have here; you have lots of unemployed people, which you don't have here; and you have lots of enthusiasts who work nights, which you don't have here. As well, our population is transient; you don't have many people who live here for 20, 30, 40 years, it's a constant cycle, so it will be difficult to find someone with decades of track experience. There's a whole community that exists in other countries that doesn't exist here. So trying to establish that core of very experienced marshals is never going to be achieved here."
Up the E11 from Abu Dhabi, the Dubai Autodrome is the other major, international-standards race track in the UAE. It holds various events throughout the year, including its big 24-hour endurance race that attracts competitors from around the world. The 24-hour race would need more than 200 marshals and officials, but for a typical local race weekend, depending on the circuit and track layout, between 70 and 120 marshals are needed, according to Paul Velasco, the communications manager for the Autodrome.
The marshals are technically not volunteers, as they get a food and transportation stipend of between Dh150 and Dh175; a small reward for standing out in the sun for an entire day with a constant stream of cars and motorcycles screaming past. But since joining the Autodrome in 2007, Velasco has been encouraged by the growing interest in motorsport, both on and off the track. And though the percentage of Emirati marshals at the grassroots level is generally lower than the 15 per cent found at the grand prix, the diversity is there.
"The number of people interested in marshalling has consistently grown, and each year, the level improves. And you know the number of nationalities you see all over the UAE? On any given race weekend, you'll see those represented with the marshals.
"Definitely, the Grand Prix did boost interest in the role of marshalling in motorsport."
Morgan is also keen to point out that, even if spectators are thin on the ground, the volunteers are still there, still keeping everything running smoothly. "We don't need anything like the numbers required for F1 at these other competitions, races and rallies," he points out, "but the drive, enthusiasm and commitment shown by the marshals working under the ATC is just as strong."
Morgan is justifiably proud of the way the UAE has been able to manage its own events, putting safety for competitors and spectators at the forefront, and in no time at all becoming the envy of the world. "It's fantastic to see the increase in Emiratis wanting to be involved. The passion and commitment they show is a credit to their nation. There's so much national pride in what they're doing.
On the track itself, Morgan says the UAE and the touring club have plans to boost Emirati participation in car racing at all levels, with an eye to one day finding that star who will be the UAE's first Formula One driver.
"We have very real Emirati talent starting to come through, so it's only a matter of time," Morgan smiles, "and I can't stress enough the importance of getting kids involved, at a really young age, starting with karting. That's how it works all over the world and it's something that the UAE's Government is actively looking at promoting. We're so fortunate here to have a leadership that's doing all it can to remove the barriers."
Whether that happens sooner or later is anyone's guess. But what will never change is the need for those people behind the scenes who volunteer their time to make motorsport in this country not only safer, but possible in the first place.
"The point to make is, nobody gets to race without the generosity of the marshals," says Hope. "We appreciate that the marshals are the most important people out there."
2012/2013 Motorsport schedule
Nov 9 Dubai Autodrome International Circuit UAESBC FG1000
Nov 30 Dubai Autodrome DAMC Racing Series UAESBC Radical Cup
Dec 7 Yas Marina Circuit Yas Racing Series Rd2
Dec 7/8 Dubai Autodrome 24hr Kart Enduro
Dec 13/14 Yas Marina Circuit Gulf 12 Hours
Dec 13/14 Dubai Autodrome Motorsport Festival UAEGT DAMC Racing Series UAESBC FG1000 Radical Cup Porsche ME
Dec 21 Dubai Autodrome UAE Chase
Jan 11/12 Dubai Autodrome Dunlop 24 Hours of Dubai
Jan 25 Yas Marina Circuit UAEGT DAMC Racing Series Radical Cup, Yas Racing Series Rd3
Feb 8 Dubai Autodrome UAESBC UAE Chase
Feb 14/15/16 Yas Marina Circuit Yas Racing Series Rd4
Feb 22 Dubai Autodrome UAEGT DAMC Racing Series UAESBC Radical Cup
March 1 Dubai Kartdrome Rd4 DAMC/Rd9 RMC
March 8 Dubai Autodrome UAEGT DAMC Racing Series UAESBC Radical Cup
March 15 Yas Marina Circuit Yas Racing Series Rd5
March 15 Dubai Kartdrome 12hr Kart Enduro
March 15 Dubai Autodrome DAMC Racing Series UAESBC FG1000
April 11 Yas Marina Circuit Yas Racing Series Rd6
April 19 Dubai Autodrome DAMC Racing Series UAESBC Drift UAE
May 10 Dubai Kartdrome 12hr Kart Enduro