x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

From gearstick to joystick

The former rally champion Mohammed ben Sulayem is about to become the first Arab sports personality to be featured in a major computer console game.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem will give money he makes on a video game to charity.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem will give money he makes on a video game to charity.

DUBAI // The former rally champion Mohammed ben Sulayem is about to become the first Arab sports personality to be featured in a major computer console game. But players in the UAE may not be able to recognise Ben Sulayem as he will coach and talk to players with an American accent. The Emirati will be one of seven world-class drivers coaching and racing against gamers when Colin McRae Dirt 2 is launched this September on all major consoles.

"I'll be saying things like, 'Wow man, gee, excellent and congratulations,'" the 14-times Middle East rally champion said on the sidelines of a press conference yesterday. In Dirt 2, players start out as a driver's assistant and progress through the ranks to race with some of the world's most famous drivers, including Ben Sulayem. He acts as a mentor to drivers in the race and when he speaks to a player in the game, his face will come up on the screen with advice or criticism.

He spent seven hours in a Dubai studio working on the lines. "It was a challenge to be in a studio for seven hours. You feel stupid because you are talking to yourself," he said. "The superstars are presented as role models. And they will try and emulate some of the world's greatest drivers such as Mohammed," said Hal Bame, director of distributor territories for Codemasters, the game's developer.

The first game, Colin McRae Dirt, sold 10 million copies. In the new edition, players are encouraged to have strong relationships with the top seven drivers. "You have to race like a professional. You can't block people. You can if you want but your superstar relationships may suffer. The more professional and proper you race the better the relationship there is with the superstar," Mr Bame added.

Ben Sulayem knew McRae from the late 1980s. The Scottish driver died in a helicopter accident, along with his son and two friends, in November 2007. "We were always good friends. We spoke on the phone a lot and he even raced here. I saw him in Goodwood in the UK just a few months before he died," said Ben Sulayem. McRae was the first Briton to win the World Rally Championship Drivers' title, with Subaru, in 1995 and also won the following two years. He won nine events for the Ford World Rallye Sport team.

He moved to the Citroën World Rally Team in 2003 and helped the team to win the first of three consecutive manufacturers' titles. "Mohammed and his personality are perfect for Dirt 2. It is about not being afraid of anything in a race car, a rally car or any other type of car," Mr Bame said. Ben Sulayem will give his profits from the game to charities in the UAE. "It is a proud moment for me and for me it is a big step. A sportsman should always give," he said.

He will be racing with other champions such as Ken Block and Travis Pastrana. Ben Sulayem has won more FIA regional championships, and more international rallies, than any racer in history. His win in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship in 1986 was the first of 14. His last professional race was in 2002. He is now the FIA vice president for sport, and is president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE.

eharnan@thenational.ae