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Sun 6 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Setting the pace

Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum is just 28 years old, yet with the launch of his A1 Grand Prix Series, has taken the motor racing world by storm. He talks exclusively to Anil Bhoyrul.

Setting the pace|~|Maktoum-200.jpg|~|IN THE DRIVING SEAT: Sheikh Maktoum’s vision became reality in September.|~|Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum is just 28 years old, yet with the launch of his A1 Grand Prix Series, has taken the motor racing world by storm. He talks exclusively to Anil Bhoyrul.

Shortly before the start of the A1 Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, a strange incident occurs off the track.

Word spreads that the sport’s ‘founder and supremo’ is in the Brazilian VIP tent, prompting three young motor racing fans to rush up towards the area in search of autographs.When they arrive, they look confused and disappointed.

“He looks different on telly. I just imagined Bernie Ecclestone would be much older,” says one of the fans.

Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum may not appreciate being mistaken for the 75-year-old Formula One boss, but the confusion is a compliment. In the space of four years, the 28-year-old Sheikh has created a US$2 billon sport on his own and from scratch. The crowning glory came on September 25 when 50 single-seater racing cars zoomed around the track at Brands Hatch, in the first of the 12-part A1GP series.

The sport has been a spectacular success with fans, sponsors, advertisers and television companies, and is already being seen a viable alternative — and threat — to Formula One.

For Sheikh Maktoum — a nephew of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed — success has been all the more sweet given his royal background.

He says: “Being from the Maktoum family is a privilege and a pressure. If you do something, people say it is because of your family. If you do nothing, then people say you are useless. But I had to do this, and do it for me, to prove that I am a winner.”

Of that, there can be no doubt. The A1GP series brings together, for the first time, 25 different nations, each competing on a level playing field — with identical racing cars. The competing countries have each paid up to US$100 million to buy their franchises, with even more countries likely to enter the sport next year.

Real Madrid soccer star Ronaldo is one of the investors in the Brazilian team, while Portuguese star Luis Figo has helped fund the Portuguese entry.

It has been a 24-hour-a-day roller-coaster ride for Sheikh Maktoum since the moment he decided to make his dreams a reality four years ago, and success was not guaranteed until the chequered flag went up at Brands Hatch.

He explains: “A monumental amount of work had to be done behind the scenes, and is still being done. I always thought we would succeed, but I never let myself get comfortable. And to be honest, I was very nervous about it, because the one thing I could not control was the crowd attendance. After everything we had done and been through to get to this stage — would anyone actually bother turning up to watch the first race? And what if they didn’t?”

As it turned out, 150,000 racing fans packed out Brands Hatch for the first race, and tickets for the rest of the series have been selling like hot cakes.

Sheikh Maktoum is claiming he will reach nearly 300 million viewers in the first year and has sold television rights to Sky Sports in Britain, Sky Italia, Fox TV in Australia and ESPN in Asia.

And there has been a great deal of thought on the race format. The 50 identical cars all use a Lola-designed chassis and a Zytek-built, 550 bhp engine. The design makes it capable of up to 190mph. It means the winners can only be the best drivers, with money and design not coming into the equation — unlike in Formula One. And Sheikh Maktoum’s grin is the widest of all, given that the initial investment all came from his own pocket.

He says: “We are here to make money. This is a business proposition, and now a business. I used my own money to fund the start of the project, putting my own cash on the line. And I did it my way. The result is that I can really enjoy achieving what I set out to do. I had a dream, and I was able to make it reality. How many other people on the planet have dreams but never turn them into reality? How many other people can say they have done what I did? I can.”

He adds: “More than anything else, I did this for myself. Now everyone can see that I am worthy of being a Maktoum. I have earned my respect.”

He can say that again — while the end product is slick and, according to early indications, a cash cow, the journey has been long and hard. ||**|||~||~||~|It was in 2001, while watching a Land Rover Series race in Britain — which featured 23 identically built Land Rovers — that the idea first became planted in Sheikh Maktoum's head.

“I thought what they were doing was great, but I also thought I could take this idea further and do it better,” he says.

For several years, the pinnacle of single-seater motor racing, Formula One, has been dogged by allegations that it is a dull sport, where technology and investment play a far greater part than driver skill.

In F1, teams can set their cars up to varying degrees, and technical specification (and the amount of cash spent) almost always affects the results: take Formula One, where 10 of the past 13 races (by October) had been won by McLaren, largely judged to have the fastest car.

“Our idea was simple — make everyone drive exactly the same car, and rather than represent teams, represent nations.

“That was the starting point, and that is the same point we reached, without compromise. I kept going, I never thought for a moment I would fail. You see, winners never surrender. They just take things one step at a time, like one big chess game.” he says.

Sheikh Maktoum has also improved the concept of motor racing by including two feature races — a sprint race with a rolling start, and a traditional feature race (Formula One style, although shorter).

The result is more action for fans over a three-day race weekend. The technical specifications of the race cars have also been carefully considered.

Traditionally, cars with high downforce create a large volume of ‘dirty’ air behind them — meaning that cars following and trying to pass others lose downforce, become difficult to drive and therefore have to drop back. This often leads to processional racing with little overtaking.

The A1 car has been specifically designed to create a very small pocket of dirty air behind it so that cars behind can get closer, allowing more chances to overtake. Additionally, the front wing has been designed to work particularly efficiently in close proximity to the car in front.

Sheikh Maktoum says: “There were a lot of milestones along the way, the very first being the concept. But it was when we placed the order for 50 racing cars that I really felt this was going to happen and be very big. However, I never saw it as some sort of competition to Formula One. I think we have our own part to play, and we bring a lot to the sport. But we are not rivals, we compliment them.”

With two years to go before he is thirty, the Sheikh can be hugely proud of his achievements. He is a graduate of Boston University in the US, speaks seven languages, has himself driven in four Formula Four races (twice finishing in the top three) and has listed an oil company on the London Stock Exchange. A keen musician, he also plays bass guitar.

“Unfortunately I have had no time for anything else as this has taken over my life,” he says.

The journey has been worth it: the success of A1GP has quickly propelled the Sheikh to the upper echelons of a notoriously competitive industry, giving him considerable influence. But he is even quicker to shrug off the idea that he
now has “power”.

“Power and influence are merely perceptions other people may have of you. I have been in that situation all my life, where people perceive I have both. It doesn’t interest me; it doesn’t go to my head. I am here to run a business.”

So far, he is doing a very good job of it.||**||

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