Magazine article The Middle East

A Drift in Abu Dhabi

Magazine article The Middle East

A Drift in Abu Dhabi

Article excerpt

"If you have a car with 450 horsepower and you take me for a drive, it's great. But then I'll want something that beats you, maybe 500 or 600 horsepower," laughs professional driver, Abbas Al Alawi. "Here, petrol is cheap that's for sure," he says "and the standard of living is high enough that we have money to spend. At Yas Marina Circuit we provide the venue, the instruction and the back up. Drivers can learn and practice their skills in the proper place, on the track not on the street."

Recent police clampdowns have sought to curb the worst excesses of wanabee UAE stunt drivers and street racers, too often reckless pursuits ending young lives in tragedy. Whether the need for speed provides diversion from occasional claustrophobia brought on by a gilded, air-conditioned cage of modern Gulf life or it's simply a more exciting and less complicated option than marriage is unclear. Young men and fast cars is not a combination unique to UAE, but Gulf Arab youth does seem to display particular affinity with car culture. That the latest instalment of the testosterone-laced car candy franchise, The Fast and the Furious, is to be filmed in Abu Dhabi should come as no surprise, although the untimely death of one of its leading actors, Paul Walker, on 30 November has cast some doubt over just when filming will resume.

At the end of the 1970s and early 1980s the UAE had no racetracks and certainly no Formula One circuits, the only popular focus for organised motorsport was the sand spattered Middle East Rally. "I have loved cars since my childhood," says Abbas. "I enjoyed PlayStation games like Gran Turismo too and when I got my licence I was driving, and racing illegally, some of the same cars on the road. One of the most popular places for high-speed modified cars was the Dubai Al Ain Road. There were lots of accidents and sorry to say several of my friends were killed."

I ask whether facilities offered at Yas have made UAE's public roads safer. "Yes, big time," is Abbas's unequivocal answer. "Last year there were fewer accidents and maybe we are one of the reasons. Our drag racing nights where people bring their own cars are very popular, maybe 40 to 50 cars turn up every weekend. They pay 300 Dirhams and have as many runs as they want. It encourages them to come back and see if their modifications make for faster times. Yes, they pay, but it's all about safety. The marshals and medical teams are here. At least if anything bad happens we're prepared."

However, as Abbas admits, there are those who continue to race on the road. "Unfortunately some guys practice here and still race illegally and we want to have a stronger co-operation with the police to stop this. It used to be that fines were not very high but three years ago penalties increased and also they're now related to speed. Over 200kmph and they impound the car. Of course there are drivers who don't care."

We leave the air-conditioned calm of a trackside cabin and emerge into dazzling light and the brain-frying heat of an Abu Dhabi day. At the edge of the Vehicle Dynamic Test Area an ambulance and crew waits on standby. Two low-slung Toyota GT86s sporting day-glo colours and Yas Circuit logos are angle parked in anticipation. …

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