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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Tackling Tel Moreeb, the hill of horror at Liwa International Festival

Jack Hammond reports from the Liwa International Festival, where competitors take on the fearsome Tel Moreeb dune.
The annual festival attracts thousands of spectators to watch the drag-racing action at Tel Moreeb dune.
The annual festival attracts thousands of spectators to watch the drag-racing action at Tel Moreeb dune.

Even before I moved to the Middle East, I’d heard about the Liwa International Festival. YouTube is full of videos of mega-tuned SUVs tackling what seems like a vertical wall of sand in a chaotic explosion of extreme madness. While I’ve never been much of a drag-racing fan, this is precisely the sort of thing my petrolhead friends demanded I check out for myself.

The basics of drag racing are fairly simple: the fastest car over a given distance is the winner. In the United States, where the sport is enormous, the details get a little more complex as you delve into it, but the basic idea remains the same. Fastest car wins, regardless of the class you drive, the fuel you use or the kind of horsepower you’re packing.

The key difference at Liwa is that the “track” lays at a gradient of close to 40 degrees, and is made entirely of super-soft sand that gets progressively worse each time another competitor takes a run up the hill. The start gets churned up every time a car launches, and the line you pick as you head up the hill plays a huge role in chipping away at those thousandths of a second.

Tel Moreeb, the Arabic name given to the massive dune, literally translates as “horror hill” – and it’s easy to see why when you stand at the start and take a look up the course. In the same way that newcomers to Dubai crane their necks to get a decent view of the towering buildings, the 300-metre-high wall of sand commands you to look up – and scan sideways, too. It truly is enormous and intimidating. That the event runs at night only serves to exacerbate that. All competitors see when they line up for their run is a windscreen full of floodlit dune and a couple of flags to help guide them through the first few metres. To tackle it in a fire-breathing, 3,000hp, V8 hell-beast straining at every seam weld and bolt hole must take the kind of intestinal fortitude the founding fathers of supersonic travel and space exploration possessed.

The Liwa International Festival isn’t all about stupendous horsepower, but it is, in the main, all about racing in one form or another. Organised by the Al Gharbia Sports Club (AGSC), the week-long festival celebrates the cultural vibrancy of the Emirates. It begins with falcon, horse and camel racing, and is capped off with championships for cars, Polaris-type dune buggies, and SUVs. It’s the latter ones we’re interested in, because that’s really what the crowd heads to Liwa to see.

It also takes a bit of effort. Liwa sits on the northern skirts of the Empty Quarter and is roughly a two-hour drive south of Abu Dhabi. Tel Moreeb is another 30 kilometres into the desert, and it’s this distance, and the event’s timing (usually the first week of January, when most people are still recovering from the New Year), that tends to keep casual observers away.

It doesn’t stop the annual faithful from turning out in their thousands, though. They line the dune adjacent to the track, and the Tel Moreeb area is alive with the sound of fireworks, tuned V6 and V8s bouncing off the rev limiter and the low, grunt of ATVs and sand rails bouncing about the dunes in the dark. The lingering whiff of exhaust, campfire smoke, burning meat and gunpowder is peculiar to the Liwa festival.

To make the racing as exciting as possible, the technical regulations are the very definition of simplicity. Where rules governing, say, Formula One are complex, lengthy and open to interpretation, those covering the four classes run to about 370 words and don’t even fill an A4 sheet of paper. Tuning regulations – or what there is of them – are free for the V8 and six-cylinder auto classes. It really is that simple.

Classes for cars equipped with manual gearboxes are a little stricter. You’re not allowed to run a V6 (rules insist on in-line six-cylinder engines only), and engines must be based on an original block. You’re allowed to turbocharge the car and run a nitrous system for extra power, and you’re also allowed to bolt on fibreglass panels to get the car as light as possible.

A new class for manual V8s was added this year, which allows competitors to run a small-block Chevrolet LS engine (6.2L or smaller) with turbo- or supercharging and nitrous. While the engine block and cylinder heads must be original, the bits inside can be modified as much as your budget will allow.

The only other rule regarding performance – and it covers all classes – is that you’re not allowed to use sand paddles. The cars need to be fitted with roll cages, fire extinguishers and other safety kit, but the performance regulations themselves are simple and save a lot of effort that may otherwise go into ­scrutineering.

Don’t let the ratty-old Y60 and Y61 Nissan Patrol bodywork and lack of a bonnet lull you into thinking that these things are anything other than high-tech racers that can cost hundreds of thousands of dirhams to prepare. Straight-six engines are based on the robust and reliable Nissan TB and Toyota JZ series engines, while the V6 and V8s are primarily race-prepped units developed by leading drag-race specialists. The engines may look similar, but the turbo arrangements, radiator placement, ignition packs and fuel systems are all bespoke. What’s most surprising is that almost every turbo runs without an air filter to strain out dust and sand before it enters the inner workings of the engine. The thinking behind this is that the turbos are mounted high up and out of the way of any thing that may be flung their way. And to give you some idea of the sort of prerequisites required, even entry-level in-line-six competitors are running well over 1,500hp engines.

Liwa also attracts top competitors like NAS Racing, which runs the Fazza team cars with backing from Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, and spends most of its year campaigning a 3,500hp Camaro SS in the Professional Drag Racers Association (PDRA) series in the US. Their team driver Badir Ahli managed fifth in the fledgling championship, and is in Liwa to compete alongside his teammate Mustafa Buhumaid.

The NAS Racing team operations ­manager Sameer Dababneh says that while the PDRA series dominates their year, the Liwa festival is the biggest of its kind, and the event’s prestigious status draws them back every year.

“We run in the V6 and V8 manual classes. The twin-turbo V6 runs at about 2,500hp, and the V8 runs between 2,500hp to 3,000hp. We can get up to 3,500hp from [the V8], but here, you don’t need it,” he explains. Too much power, another competitor explains, compromises what little grip you have and means the car doesn’t float over the top of the sand quite as well as it should.

Yes. You read that correctly. A fully modified supercharged and nitrous-pumped Chevrolet-engined V8 isn’t really pushing itself when it makes a run at the hill. Standing next to the vehicle, you’d swear the thing was about to blow itself into a million pieces. Even with earplugs, the percussive whump of the engine and the filling-rattling roar cuts through. The car seems to suck you towards that enormous bonnet as Buhumaid launches his car off the line in one almighty, angry explosion. All eight header pipes – short lengths of exhaust which run directly out of both banks of the V8 – snort blue and orange flames in an enormous eruption. I’ve never put my head inside a jet engine while it’s running, but the volume generated by Buhumaid’s engine must come pretty close to rivalling a Eurofighter with afterburners lit. The acceleration must feel like you’re being launched from an aircraft carrier.

One driver tells me: “It’s violent, yes. But I’m not really thinking about that. All I’m thinking about is getting to the top of the hill. That’s all.”

It’s a real and present concern, because not all make it. Some engines expire on the line; some lose a fuel line, water hose or turbo on the run. Some catch fire. Some break their steering; some lose tyres. Dropping a water hose or blowing a head gasket can be a major problem, not so much for the fear that the engine may overheat, but because the windscreen is instantly blanketed in water, oil or a sticky mixture of the two that obliterates forward vision. Not ideal when you’ve got at least 1,500hp to pilot up a powdery slope of grit and dust.

While prize money is healthy, the cost of competition far outweighs that offered to competitors. But prize money is not why most drivers take part. It’s about the respect you get as a competitor for tackling the hill; the pride you get from beating everyone else in the pits.

The man who enjoyed that honour this year was Buhumaid, who blitzed the sprint in 7.050 seconds, ahead of the RSG-­prepared cars of teammates Hamad bin Suroor (7.241 seconds) and Saaed bin Suroor (7.258 seconds). It was a reverse of their results during the event last year, when Saaed pipped Hamad by just four thousandths of a second to take the win. There was consolation for Hamad this year in the six-­cylinder classes, where he topped the open six-cylinder auto rankings with a time of 7.324 seconds.

It may take a little effort to get to the event, but the annual Liwa International Festival is something that everyone should plan to see. Keep the first week of January free next year, and keep tabs on the AGSC’s website for dates closer to the event. Any petrolhead worth their salt will love it.

Published: January 15, 2015 04:00 AM


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