x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Grand Prix is firing up motorsport ambitions

The drivers expect a surge in interest in their sport, and the number of fans in their stands.

The UAE's professional racing drivers are hoping to benefit by being caught in the Formula One slipstream. With fewer than 30 days to go to the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the drivers expect a surge in interest in their sport, and the number of fans in their stands. When the national racing season kicks off later this month, more than 30 racing teams will be battling it out in one of four categories: the touring car championship; GT championship; UAE Sports Bike Championship; and Gulf Sport Radical Cup.

"Motor sports such as rallying, have been in the region for years but actual track racing is relatively new," said Khalid al Mutawaa, 25, from Dubai. The driver who has raced single-seater Renaults in France and now manages other Emirati drivers in Europe said the Grand Prix on Yas Island could eventually lead to a national getting behind the wheel of an F1 car. "It is one of my ambitions to get an Emiraiti driver in an F1 car within 20 years," he said.

Local drivers with F1 ambitions will be watching the upcoming race closely, he said. "Once somebody gets around a track as fast as possible, they want to get around it faster and faster and even through bends as fast as possible," Mr al Mutawaa said. "We love our cars here in the Gulf but it is the educating people on how to drive them properly on a track," he added, that is important. One aspiring F1 driver, Ramez Azzam, 18, a Canadian who grew up in Dubai, said he could barely imagine the thrill of driving in front of his friends in an F1 car someday in the UAE.

"Everybody dreams about driving a F1 car, but it is better to be seen on TV driving one," he joked. Mr Azzam, who has also raced single seater cars in France, started driving karts when he was 14. "When I heard about the Grand Prix coming to the UAE, I didn't think I'd be driving one by then but did think I'd be racing and how good it would be for us here," said Mr Azzam, who races for France-based SG Formula.

Carl Rolaston, the chief executive of racing team AUH Motorsports, expects not only a massive interest from locals but also for the Grand Prix to boost motorsport tourism. His company intends to rent out racing cars to drivers and train them on the Yas Island track. "In the UK, it costs £300 to get to London from the North of England to drive the same car on a track. Instead they could buy a flight to the UAE for the same money. He'll be driving on the track while the wife will be at the spa and the the children can be at a theme park. The grandmother could also come along and go to the Louvre Museum," he said.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place on November 1. eharnan@thenational.ae