There’s a sudden deep roar from the engine. The pit man slaps on the bonnet and gives the thumbs up. I’m boiling away in wool overalls and a cotton balaclava under my helmet. Driving is HH Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum, 22 years old and the first Emirati confirmed as a speedcar driver. I lean over to ask if he can spare five minutes afterwards for a chat. But with a second thumbs up from the pitman, the engine gives one more guttural outburst before we’re shuttled forwards and I’m, rightly, flung back into my seat.
Speedcar is stock car racing. It’s a Dubai-friendly name for a very rough and ready motorsport that combines hard driving with abrupt, nervy turns and big, big engine sounds. The growls are very much part of the attraction.
Having been brought up hanging around the dirt ovals of speedway and stock car tracks in the north of England, the opportunity to ride with Dubai’s own Sheikh Hasher around the autodrome was too good to pass up. From the abrupt, confident way he flicks into gears through to the toe curling grinding halts that drag us through turns, Sheikh Hasher has the showmanship of a boy racer. He later tells me that he graduated from karting, of which he is the UAE champion, into speedcar. It seems a natural progression, especially as he flings the car with abandon towards the edges of the track at one sharp turn.
December will see the start of the Speedcar Series, a six-round Asian stock car tournament that starts in Dubai before moving to Bahrain, Malaysia and ending up back at the Autodrome. Sheikh Hasher is competing in the UP Team with previous GT World Champion David Terrien, who has been schooling the young driver on how to drive in an event like this.
Speedcar is undoubtedly rough. It demands a driver that can perfectly time the abrupt drop in speed needed to take the heavy vehicle around corners. Traditionally, this style of racing took place on an oval and so the twisting tracks that make up the Speedcar Series, like the autodrome and Malaysia’s Sepang course, demand a different approach more from drivers to keep on the tarmac.
The cars themselves define the event, with all drivers put behind the wheel of identically tuned and designed cars. Each has the same fuel, the same chassis and engine and each is heavily scrutineered prior to a race to ensure that all competitors are driving under the same conditions. Meticulous fuel checks and jigs are used to check that all measurements are consistent. It’s this that brings the ‘stock’ element to the event and also partly what attracts former F1 drivers to the sport.
Not only is the overall race a lot more rough and ready than the sleeker sides of motorsport (pile ups are are not uncommon sights in the sport), but the standardised cars also puts a lot more onus onto the drivers themselves. Taking a step away from the gearheads aspect of motor-sports puts an even greater emphasis on the input of individual drivers – their ability and a dose of daringness. It’s what makes speedcar good watching, particularly in the aggressive and tight final straight.
Sheikh Hasher drops the speed as we pull into the pits. We slide to a halt outside the garage and I clamber haphazardly out of the window. As he slips off his helmet, the boyracer swagger evaporates and he seems quite positively shy. ‘I’ve only started getting involved with motorsports three years ago,’ he explains. ‘I had nothing to do with racing cars before that. I’m quite new to the sport, I’ve only done one season in these kinds of stock cars, so this is a new experience for me.’
After a disappointing result in last year’s Speedcar Series, Sheikh Hasher seems aware that he’s very much a rookie among a pack of former world champions and F1 powerhouses like Johnny Herbert. He makes no secret of his reliance on his more experienced team mate David Terrien. ‘I regard myself as his student,’ he declares.
Sheikh Hasher winces at the sound of another car tearing into the pits. He’s clearly been listening to this eye-twitch inducing blast all day. ‘Spectators enjoy the noise, it’s a huge sound and exciting. For those more into motorsports, it’s a good race because you get a lot of ex-Formula One racers competing. You get different types of drivers taking part – just look over some of the guys’ histories and you’ll see their background is not in this sort of driving at all.’
With Dubai’s race in December to open the season, Sheikh Hasher will be on home soil. It’ll be interesting to see if he can make a name for himself in the sport. ‘If I can do this again next season, then it will be a success,’ he says, modestly, before being drowned out by yet another howl from an engine.