By Shahzad Sheikh
Time to go racing - after all, it’s worth $11bn to the economy says spectator Shahzad Sheikh.
Now I know what you’re thinking, this is a column suggesting that at age 41, Michael Schumacher is too far gone over the hill to be participating in his 252nd Formula 1 race today (Sunday) – despite the fact that he is a seven-time world champion and has broken just about every record in the book.
Critics will argue that he is coming back to a sport where most racers retire in their mid to late 30s. That the physical high g-force pummelling a human body takes over an F1 race – far more than most people realise – is more than the speed miester, with his creaking neck and all, can handle. And that he doesn’t look quite as sprightly as his former self at the end of a full-distance run. Then they’ll point to the fact that he was comprehensively shown up by his eager young upstart teammate at the first race at Bahrain this year.
I’m not his biggest fan – I never forgave him for punting off Damon Hill at Adelaide in 1994 to secure his first championship – but give the guy a break. He’s coming back after three years off and will be lining up only four-hundredths of a second off teammate Nico Roseberg on the grid for the GP at Albert Park. Never dismiss Herr Schumacher – that’s for sure. If nothing else, it’s a brilliant comeback story – like Rocky VI but with more emotive acting.
But it’s not about him, it’s about me. Sure, seeing as we’re closely matched on the year-count I should be taking inspiration from his comeback, but he’s been racing since he was four, and he is naturally gifted as well as quite obviously an automaton.
Doing what I do, I’ve had a little on-track experience, and a bit of racecar seat time (three laps in an F1 car at Paul Ricard, spinning a Nascar-style Speedcar at the Autodrome) – and whilst I’m way too modest to admit I’m a brilliant driver, I will concede to being relatively handy behind the wheel.
But before we enter into the why it can never be so, perhaps we should ask why should anyone care?
Well because whether the greenies like it or not, motor racing is big business. And it seems to be migrating to our part of the world, subject to being socially outcast in its traditional homelands.
We love cars, we love power, we love speed here in the Middle East. We also love spending money. There is no sure way to find out just what motorsports is worth to the region – even canvassing a selection of people I know, who should know, revealed no definitive answer – but it’s a lot.
One did bring up a survey from a couple of years ago suggesting a turnover related to motorsports and motor racing infrastructures in the GCC of around $11bn. That sounds rather a lot, but by some accounts Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit alone is a one and a half billion dollar exercise in the pursuit of speed and excellence.
And whilst we have our own fast growing generation of young upstarts itching to get out on track and show their mates who’s boss, particularly in the local populace, most of them can’t afford to without the generosity of a benefactor or sponsor (rather hard to come by these days). Either that or they are too busy studying, establishing their careers, chasing girls or dealing with the trauma of acne.
In fact, as with the early days of motorsports in Europe, grass roots motorsports comes from ‘made-it’ guys. Those of perhaps somewhat advancing age that are high-achievers and go-getters who, through a series of successes have set up a sufficient foundation for their financial security that they have both the time and resources to indulge in their boyhood passion: motor racing.
One-make series in Europe are full of gentleman racers – well-to-do middle-ageing amateurs out for an adrenalin rush – Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini all have one-make series that cater to the like. And it’s no different here, with the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East, also having a special class – the Mobile 1 Trophy – aimed at rewarding those racing with a true amateur spirit and yes, that includes the over 40s.
Now as a humble journalist I cannot claim to fit that profile, I barely struggle to put food on the table to feed my kids (cue violins, hope the bosses are reading), but had I been more financially fortunate in my career thus far, my thoughts would inevitably have turned to motor racing, having loved cars and driving since… well forever. And with motor racing in its fledgling form here being so accessible, it would be rude not to have a go.
There’s just one fly in the ointment. You do need to have a modicum of talent and skill – not to mention an obsessive competitive streak.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to have a few lovely Aston Martins (DBS, V12 Vantage) at my disposal in which to explore the full F1 GP circuit at the aforementioned Yas Marina Circuit. Heaven you’d think, right? Hell actually.
On my orientation lap I became totally disorientated as the instructor talked me through the layout of the track. Halfway round I was utterly lost. Come my turn to take the wheel I was completely befuddled, braking markers and apexes got all muddled up, it became a struggle just to get around. At the end of the three tortuous laps, I actually ended up apologising to the poor fellow, charged with chaperoning me around the circuit, for my appallingly abysmal efforts.
It’s a long circuit, very technical, very perplexing, designed to confuse and confound you – and to challenge you. The left-right sharp direction changes of the street section – with little or no run off – are especially nasty. A Formula 1 car through here would be terrifying and thrilling.
On my next couple of sessions things improved, but only slightly. I couldn’t tell you what the Astons were like, I was more concerned about getting them back in one piece. It was rather a galling and depressing experience, especially after a couple of passenger laps with professional Aston driver Darren Turner in the Vantage GT4 gentleman’s racer special – see the video here .
It puts you in your place to see what the real pros can do, and I was somewhat heartened to read that very strong ‘amateur racer’ (Harris Irfan, running second in class as a privateer in the UAE GT series – read his story here , feels somewhat similar when he encounters a young ‘mentor’, constantly amazed at his ability and technical proficiency despite the fact he only started shaving last week.
Still it’s good to know that weekend after weekend, my contemporaries with more ability, dedication and the obstinate desire to be first, will be out there giving it their all – dreading and loving the experience at the same time.
Shahzad Sheikh is Editorial Director at Car Middle East.