x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

UAE's need for speed offers bright future for racers

To produce an Emirati Formula One driver by 2020 is a challenge but the country has made unbelievable progress in the past.

Drag racing's Khalid Al Balooshi is one UAE's fastest men. Courtesy Gary Nastase
Drag racing's Khalid Al Balooshi is one UAE's fastest men. Courtesy Gary Nastase

White headdress flailing in the wind, the fearless horseman tears through the desert dunes beneath a scorching sun.

That romantic image of the Arabian knight may be all but consigned to history now, but to natives of these lands it still burns in the collective consciousness. Modern life may be unrecognisable from what it was even a few decades ago, but traditions die hard.

One, in particular, survives unscathed. That is the desire, like those heroic forefathers, to seek adventure. To seek speed. Not the simplistic stereotype of young men driving around in fancy cars. But the very real notion of competition.

Speedboat racing, drag racing, rally driving. Emiratis have shown a predisposition to excel at such high-octane events that seems to be absent from other sports. And with the fourth Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix weekend getting under way, motor racing continues to flirt with the affections of the local population.

Is it simply the need for speed? Or something more deep-rooted?

It's a bit of both, says Justin Thomas, assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, who suggests two reasons for this seemingly intrinsic love of velocity.

The first is the affinity with conquering new terrain, a trait passed down across generations, indeed, positively encouraged, in this part of the world. It's that Arabian horseman tearing across the desert. Thomas quotes the Hadith of Umar (Ibn Al Khatab), the second Islamic caliph: "Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding."

Riding horses is, of course, no longer part of everyday life here. The nomadic life that defined the people of the Arabian peninsula is now as much a relic as that image of the flying horseman.

Thomas, however, believes that a lasting love of racing perhaps explains the growing fixation with motorsport in the UAE, and the relative success of Emiratis in them. The machine, in essence, has replaced the horse.

The second reasons is a slightly generalised, almost stereotyped reason. But a positive stereotype nonetheless.

"It comes from the highly prized Bedu virtues of generosity, courage, modesty and fearlessness," he says, highlighting a common thread running through these qualities in local culture. "Some see generosity and fearlessness as linked: the miser fears poverty, the generous is fearless."

It certainly takes fearlessness, and pride in it, to go where these speed merchants do.

It is this "fearlessness" that has produced the likes of the record-breaking rally driver Mohammed ben Sulayem; Khalid Al Balooshi, the Dubai native who recently sped at more than 525kph in winning his first race in the elite NHRA Top Fuel drag racing; and the several powerboat champions for Victory Team and others.

But with this fearlessness comes risk, and with risk can come tragedy.

In 2009, the Emirati pilot Mohammad Al Mehairi and his French partner Jean-Marc Sanchez were killed in a high-speed crash during the World Powerboat Championships in Dubai.

Success, it must be stressed, comes second to safety. Indeed, last month Al Balooshi conceded that a safety culture will be the biggest factor in determining how successful motorsport is in the UAE. His concern is understandable. Motor racing is an arena that takes years to master.

Formula One is the most exclusive, and potentially dangerous, of all. The sport in the UAE remains very much in its infancy, and the challenge to produce an Emirati F1 driver by 2020 looks a tall order, indeed. Currently, no Emirati is involved in either Formula 3000 or Formula Three, the two levels just below F1 and essential stages for any driver aspiring to racing's top tier.

But Richard Cregan, the chief executive at Yas Marina Circuit, sees a shift in attitude towards Formula One, in particular, and motorsport, in general.

Speaking in the latest issue of F1 magazine ahead of this week's event, he foresaw a bright future for professional motor racing thanks to initiatives like the circuit's KartZone and the Yas Driving School.

Meanwhile, schools across the nation are attempting to instil the thrill of racing - and the engineering that lies behind it - into students at an early age through the F1 in Schools programme, which sees teams design and build a working miniature of a Formula One car, the winner taking home the Bernie Ecclestone World Champions trophy.

It is hoped that, in the short term, such initiatives will foster a Formula One environment. In the long term, eight years may still seem an awfully short time for the country to produce its first F1 driver.

Then again, few would have thought the transition from horse to machine would have been made at lightning speed.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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