x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Father and son go head-to-head in Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

Mansoor bel Helei grew up racing across the desert dunes. Two decades later, he faces up to the man who taught him what he knows.

Yahya bel Helei and his son Mansour face off against each other today in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
Yahya bel Helei and his son Mansour face off against each other today in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

ABU DHABI // Since before Mansoor bel Helei can remember, his father Yahya has been behind the wheel, careering across the desert.

Yahya has raced in every Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge - or UAE Desert Challenge, as it was until two years ago - for the past 20 years.

This year, though will be different: for the first time, it will pit father against son.

The contest has been a long time in the making. As a young boy, Mansoor used to sit in the passenger seat as his father crashed through gears and across dunes.

"It is a very challenging race," says Mansoor, who is now 19 and in his first year in university. "I always wanted to enter this rally."

Today at 3pm he will set off in his Nissan Patrol after the opening ceremony at the capital's Marina Mall.

The racing itself starts tomorrow morning near the Qasr Al Sarab hotel, on the edge of the Empty Quarter.

While the 120 cars, trucks, motorbikes and quad bikes race, their support teams back at the bivouac next to the hotel will be preparing the garages, checking tools and readying spare parts.

Once the cars arrive back after a hard day's racing, the mechanics will work through the night preparing them for the next day.

"There is a really good atmosphere down there all the time," says Mansoor.

This year will be his first at the wheel. Last year he participated as his father's navigator, although the duo were forced to retire on the third day because of electrical problems. For three years before that, he rode with the race safety crews.

According to Yahya, the most dangerous time to race is between 11am and 2pm, when the sun is at its zenith. "A lot of drivers have their eyes blacked out," he says.

"It is not for everyone," agrees Mansoor. "It gets real hot and you end up getting cooked."

The steep undulation of the dunes can leave drivers disoriented. On the upward slope, all they see is sky and blinding sun, while on the way down their view is entirely sand.

Get it wrong, and they can easily get stuck or even roll down the dune. Each dune is a blind hill, giving the driver no idea what they will face on the other side until they pass the peak. All along, the navigator has to ensure they are on the right track.

"You can't see over the dunes," says Yahya. "Some drivers might have crashed and then get hit. Our desert is very difficult for our cars."

Although he thinks his own years of practice will help him, Yahya admits his son has a good chance of doing well.

"To win in our desert you need experience with a powerful car," he said.

He is so keen for his son to do well, he is sponsoring him.

Mansoor is spending as much time as possible practising and hopes eventually to be able to turn professional. "My father taught me everything possible to enter and compete in the Desert Challenge. I am in the desert all the time practising and in my free time I am even in the desert.

"I always go to the desert, even sometimes in my Toyota Landcruiser. It's a different lifestyle than other people."

eharnan@thenational.ae