x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The roar must go on all year for motorsport to thrive in UAE

The popularity of F1 is not spreading down to other events in UAE such as karting at the grassroot level.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix towards the end of the Formula One season is played out in front of packed stands while events such as karting, next, hardly find any takers despite good facilities. Srdjan Suki / AP Photo; Courtesy Al Ain Raceway
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix towards the end of the Formula One season is played out in front of packed stands while events such as karting, next, hardly find any takers despite good facilities. Srdjan Suki / AP Photo; Courtesy Al Ain Raceway

Tomorrow, Yas Island will be a very noisy place.

The evening will see the heavy metal giants Metallica perform at du Arena in front of thousands of fans.

Earlier in the day, a different but even louder event takes place nearby, at Yas Marina Circuit. But the Abu Dhabi Super Street Drag Championship likely will attract considerably fewer spectators than will the ageing rockers.

That's hardly a surprise; drag racing ranks well down the list of popular motor sports. For most local fans, motor racing begins and ends with the Formula One weekend in November.

Steven Umfreville, the commercial director at Yas Marina Circuit, is keen to debunk the notion that F1 is the only game on Yas Island.

The jocular question posed to Umfreville at the Abu Dhabi International Sports Exhibition last week was: "As Formula One director, you work only one weekend a year, right?" Many in the audience laughed.

For Umfreville, the continued apathy towards other racing events at the Yas Marina Circuit is anything but a laughing matter.

"We're busy throughout the whole year, from circuit racing to drag racing and karting. We promote all domestic motorsport at Yas Marina Circuit," he said during a forum entitled: "The Future of Motorsport in the Region".

"We have a major goal. Our mission is 'sustainable motorsport'. And we do that by encouraging motorsport in all of its disciplines. But, looking forward, we need the support from all sides - teams, sponsors and media."

Motor racing is more than just Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but it will take some time for that message to reach audiences. The region and, in particular the UAE, has an infrastructure capable of holding competitions across the spectrum of the sport, but aspiring local drivers have limited entry points to racing.

"We have some of the best, or the best, facilities here in the GCC," Umfreville said. "But we're still very much at a beginner level in terms of participation and there are key areas we need to work on, like getting support from sponsors and media."

Nearly all experts agree that go-karting is the starting point. Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Mark Webber and just about any other F1 driver at some point had to prove themselves at that level before progressing through the ranks of other single-seater disciplines and, ultimately, to F1.

"We hold two rounds of Formula One in the region, and our friend Mr Ecclestone has built a very successful model which has an element of being the most expensive sport in the world," Umfreville said. "But I think we have to push the message, especially in karting, that there are different levels you can participate in."

Karting in the UAE is slowly gaining a foothold. Yas Kartzone and Al Ain Raceway, in particular, have taken major steps to promote the category in the UAE.

Still, there is no unifying regional body that makes organised, year-round competitions across the GCC a possibility.

The void of a coordinated approach is about a limited audience and a lack of money.

"We don't have a motorsport industry," said Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, who races with the Saudi Falcons team. "What makes F1 so successful is that everything works perfectly together. That's what we don't have elsewhere."

Motorsport in the region, he said, is a top-down industry. It needs to be flipped.

"We don't have an industry for youngsters to enter, we don't have an industry that sponsors trust to promote their branding, we don't have the media that is going to cover what is going on," he said. "A driver will never be a success without a sponsor, and a sponsor will never be a success without the media. So it's a vicious circle."

Case in point: how much promotion do "other" events at Yas Marina Circuit receive in comparison to the admittedly vastly more popular Formula One?

Practically none.

It is about a lack of events or participation, which is due to lack of funding, which is due to lack of interest. A vicious circle, indeed.

But it's not all gloom. Umfreville points out that the growth has been rapid, considering the starting point.

"Generally, we're getting busier," he said. "Since 2004, we've continued to see motorsport grow and we have caught up very quickly in a very short period of time, to be honest. We're there or thereabouts."

And he should know. Tomorrow night he will be at Yas Marina Circuit, as he is almost every week. The spring day fans head to Yas Island for more than loud guitars, however, remains some way off.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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