Until you see a place like Yas Marina for yourself, you don’t get the true impression of just how new everything is. Prior to 1960, Abu Dhabi and it’s neighbouring Yas Island (until remarkably recently used as a bombing range!) were practically uninhabited. The rush for oil in the 60s and 70s brought with it rapid growth and modernisation forging what we see today. Everything feels so incredibly recent, westernised and friendly; and that’s as eye-opening as it is refreshing.
The same can be said about motorsport in the area; Omani driver Ahmad Al Harthy is the first of his kind, a pioneer of his sport when he started racing back in 2006. Prior to 2004, the Middle East had no circuits, just over a decade later, it has four and hosts Formula One Grand Prix’, a 24-hour race, a Moto GP race, and a WEC round each year.
It’s all growing so quickly, but why? And what does the future for the region hold? Al Harthy sat down with Stephen Kilbey to tell the his story, and discuss motorsport’s presence in the Gulf:
“Well, my first experience in any proper racing would have been in 2006 in a championship called Thunder Arabia based at Bahrain,” he explained. “It was a project for Martin Hines and the Zip Karts, they were like Formula Fords I guess just smaller. That made me the first Omani circuit racer, and for quite a while too.
“And then I decided to move, I did well in the championship, scored quite a few podiums, so I decided to experiment with what I could do. I had two options, Formula Renault UK BARC or a championship in Asia which was more glamour than anything else.”
And from that point onwards, his career path changed, after a few years in single-seaters, Al Harthy shifted to GTs and has built up a personal reputation as well as a race team run by Motorbase – Oman Racing Team – which has become a stalwart in the European GT scene.
During that time though, the motorsport interest in the Middle East has shifted and grown around him too.
“I think the foundation is important,” he stressed. “In Oman I can say that motorsport was always really quiet, and once I started it was still quiet in terms of karting too. The karting track in Oman re-opened two and a half years ago and now we’re seeing a huge potential from youth, it’s what you need if you want drivers to get into international championships. So there is a wealth of young potential drivers.
“We’ve got one budding talent in Formula 4 for instance (Al Faisal Al Zubair) with my ex-team Hillspeed. There’s a path for them now, and you can see that with his successes, finishing on the podium and getting a driver with Fortec.”
“For me this is my tenth year in circuit racing, which is important for me, I like to represent the region. Based on what my fellow Middle Eastern drivers have decided to do: Abdulaziz Al Faisal and Khaled Al Qubaisi, they’ve been showcasing their talents in the WEC, Blancpain, Le Mans, all sorts of things, it helps GT racing get more coverage in the region.”
But just how much coverage does it get in those countries? There’s a dedicated regional channel called Gear One which – like Motors TV in Europe – shows a variety of racing, and is available to the masses.
“Public exposure has increased dramatically though from when I started racing. People are reading and understanding more about GT racing now compared to anything else, but there’s still a lot to be done, for example Blancpain races are now televised on regional channels but not the Blancpain races my team is doing, because the Sprint Series gets more coverage.
“I think there’s also still a big role from the media to learn more about the sport,” he continued. “We need people from outlets and channels coming to events like the Gulf 12 Hours to get a better understanding for what we do. We need that because my team’s budget focuses completely on racing, we don’t have the budget to focus on marketing and PR related areas. My philosophy with the Oman Racing Team has always been racing first.”
There was one problem though, and that was that Yas Marina was unfortunately a ghost town during the Gulf 12 Hours meeting, an event which has the potential to attract local entrants. Nevertheless, Al Harthy believes that getting people on those grandstands isn’t an impossible task.
“We’re so close to getting crowds at races. I mean, for me it’s easy to get my sponsors to bring people, this weekend at Yas Marina there’s the most people I’ve ever had come to watch me race.
“So in that combination, along with our current partners. We try and bring our team and the championships we race in closer to the people of Oman. Although there’s no circuits there we want to get people excited. We try and give people a chance to see the race car, win things. We put an Aston in Oman for two months like a road show, we moved it around, getting people aware of what we do. It’s very important.”
In Oman, there are currently no facilities above karting to race at, and that’s a big hurdle to jump. Sure, the Dubai Autodrome and Yas Marina aren’t too far away, but those circuits still suffer from a lack of national events.
“We hope to have a circuit in Oman within the next few years too,” Al Harthy revealed. “Nothing has been fully decided, and it won’t be anything like a Formula One circuit – we just need something like a Brands Hatch, we need something to get the national racing scene going. We want it used throughout the year rather than to just host one-off events.”
It’s clear that Al Harthy believes in the discipline he races in, because to him, the progression in the area isn’t stemming from the globalisation of Formula One and its extended calendar, but instead the events like the Dubai 24 Hours which engage people from the region. The grid for next year’s Dubai 24 Hours is due to reach 100 cars, showing its increasing relevance as an event in the yearly calendar.
Even so, there’s still so much more to be done before the Middle East’s infrastructure matches that of the UK or USA.
“It’s not enough! Formula One’s growth here? It’s not enough!,” he stated firmly. “Personally I don’t think Formula One is what is going to get people from the Middle East into motorsport. The GT championships I think is what it’s about. But obviously the problem is that all young karters want to race in Formula One, but that’s not realistic, we all know that.
“I think the region needs to give exposure to things like the Gulf 12, the Porsche Challenge but other than that I don’t see how local championships are ever going to do it without international interest.
“Young drivers need to realise that it’s not all about F1, they should start focusing on a different path, like mine through GT when they start. The more drivers that do that, the more it will become economical as well, more feasible for Arab teams to start. We are an Arab entrant, and have been for over a year now in Europe but the backbone is British, it’s all Motorbase.
“I forget too sometimes that Oman is getting exposure out of all this, it’s a small country, it’s a country that doesn’t usually relate to motorsport, but Oman has become known in some circles through our programme. It’s about partnering for the right reasons because at the end of the day the people who fund our programmes rely on what we do outside of the circuit.”
So in 10 years time, in the future, what’s the state of racing going to be? There’s potential for a boom, but also for it to slow down. More drivers like Ahmad Al Harthy need to blossom and fly the flag for a part of the world which certainly has the potential to become a power in global motorsport.
“We have the foundation. Instead of 10 karters, we need 200. We need 100 drivers going to Europe instead of 10 to compete and lift the standards. We just need more and more young drivers and we need a proper way to support them. It’s difficult, it all comes from money, numbers and figures.
“Through the exposure we get as a big GT team here, we can open the eyes of our partners and guests who maybe have the capability to support young talent. People just don’t expect it to be this professional, whereas in the UK everyone has been around it for about 30 to 40 years, generation after generation know about it.
“I’ve seen businessmen support drivers for the love of the sport, that’s what needs to happen. Motorsport is also heavily dependant on parental support, most drivers come from that which is also a push that needs to be made before exposure. It’s all so new to the region.
“But it’s overall positive, as I can see the karters from all the different countries here starting to climb up the ladder and get to bigger championships and achieve good results too. Whatever we’ve been doing seems to have been worthwhile, but I still need to push so hard to be a part of this campaign to make motorsport relevant in the Middle East.
“It needs to pay off.”
Formula 4 picture: Jakob Ebrey Photography