V8 Supercars: the great divide descends on Yas Marina

Ford and Holden will renew their close rivalry at the Yas Marina Circuit next week, when the Australian V8 Supercars come to town.

"Door to door racing." That is the promise given by Richard Cregan, the CEO of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management, when he spoke of the Australian V8 Supercars that are coming to Abu Dhabi next week. By "door to door", Cregan is referring to the thrilling, paintwork-threatening proximity of the race cars as they take the turns on the track two or three cars abreast at speed.

Abu Dhabi got its first taste of V8 Supercars at last November's grand prix, when the first round of the Chevrolet Super Cars Middle East Challenge was one of the curtain-raiser events for the F1. Next weekend will see the Australian V8 supercars race at Yas Marina Circuit - it will be a night race and the opening race for the series's 2010 season, closely followed by the Desert 400 race in Bahrain on February 25. Only Ford and General Motors Holden V8s will compete in the race, giving UAE spectators a first-hand look at the Ford-vs-Holden rivalry that has dominated Australian motorsport for decades. The Yas Marina Circuit will be set to a configuration that includes a hair-raising section of corkscrew bends to encourage spectacular and skilled racing.

The decision to make the Abu Dhabi V8 race a night event was taken in consultation with the Australian organisers, according to Cregan. "We've had the organisers out here and we decided that, with the use of the corkscrew part of the track, it will be a great spectacle," says Cregan. "The night race appeal should be exciting." A contract has been signed with Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management to ensure that the Australian season starts in Abu Dhabi for the next three years. After the two Gulf events this year, the drivers, pit crews and more than 100 tonnes of cars and equipment worth more than AU$50 million (Dh168 million) - will return to Australia with the Clipsal 500 race in Adelaide on March 11.

Among the star attractions will be Craig Lowndes, who came fourth in last year's Australian V8 series and is a three-time Australian championship winner. Lowndes has just switched from Ford to Holden and the reaction among brand-loyal Australian fans to his move will be interesting indeed. Another star to look out for is 2009 V8 champion and Lowndes's Team Vodafone teammate Jamie Whincup, who drove a Ford to victory, but has also switched to Holden with Lowndes. The 2010 grid will include only 10 Fords clashing with 19 Holdens. Ford fans will be looking to Fabian Coulthard, second cousin of F1 star David Coulthard, Mark Winterbottom and Steven Johnson, son of Australian V8 legend Dick Johnson, to fly the blue oval flag this season.

The first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, held in November last year, helped raise awareness of motorsport in the Middle East and now V8 Supercars Australia has high hopes that Australian fans will make the trip to the region and splash out on attending the Abu Dhabi and Bahrain events.

Cregan says the Australian V8s were chosen for the 2010 calendar as part of the broader plan to include events to attract different groups of motorsport fans from different parts of the world, citing other events such as the Asian and European fan base of last week's GP2 Asia and the North American support for drag racing, which debuts in Abu Dhabi next month. "The V8 supercars have a huge following back in Australia and within the Middle East among the expat community," Cregan says.

Cregan and Tony Cochrane, the executive chairman of V8 Supercars Australia, agree that bringing the V8s to Abu Dhabi as well as the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) should pull motor sport fans to the Middle East from Australia. Attracting Australian visitors to the Gulf for the two events has been a key element of the marketing campaign for officials at Yas Marina Circuit. "We have been working with Etihad to organise packages to get Australian fans here and then on to the Bahrain event," Cregan says.

In fact, the BIC agreed to move its event from November 5-7 last year to accommodate not only travellers but the race series itself. "In very good faith the BIC generously agreed to withdraw last year's race from the calendar in order for us to come back a little over three months later," Cochrane said. "It would have been feasibly impossible for us to travel to the Middle East with all our requirements twice in such a short space of time."

While the race will start late at night on Australian and New Zealand television, Cregan is not worried about a possible loss of TV viewers in the southern hemisphere and instead believes that the prospect of visiting Abu Dhabi and Bahrain in March will be very appealing to visitors. "It is a good time for people to visit - the weather is good and the night race will give them an opportunity to enjoy Abu Dhabi during the day and then be entertained at the track in the evening."

Next weekend's action will give UAE motor sport fans a chance to experience the tribal loyalties that dominate Australian V8 supercar racing. Australian fans are firmly divided between the Ford and Holden camps. Nowhere in Australia is this rivalry more keenly felt than in the rural city of Bathurst, with nearly 50 years of motor racing heritage. In Bathurst, two hours west of Sydney, the Labour Day weekend every October is the scene of Australia's best-known V8 race, featuring the annual clash between Ford and Holden at the Mount Panorama track. The race, which has been run since 1963, is now known as the Bathurst 1000, but in the course of the race's history, different categories of cars have been involved. It is now exclusively a Ford-vs-Holden V8 race.

Over the years, the names of sponsors have encroached on the race's official name. The FAI 1000, when an insurance company tediously sponsored the race, and the Hardie-Ferodo 1000, are two past monikers for the event. The race's original name was the Armstrong 500 but, as the current name suggests, it is run over 1,000km. The most successful driver in the race's history is Peter Brock, known as "Peter Perfect" and "The King of the Mountain". He won the race nine times between 1972 and 1987 and his most famous cars were the Number 05 Holden Commodore and Holden Torana. He was killed while driving in a Western Australian rally in September, 2006, and now the Peter Brock trophy is presented to the Bathurst race winner in his honour.

While the big race is now exclusively for Fords and Holdens, other badges have won the coveted title at the place known by locals simply as "The Mount", most notoriously New Zealand's Jim Richards in a Nissan GT-R in 1992. Unamused Ford and Holden fans tried to shout down his victory speech and he responded in a less than gentlemanly manner on live national television. Richards won in treacherous conditions and later apologised for his public outburst, saying he was upset by the death of fellow driver and countryman Denny Hulme, who suffered a heart attack during the race.

A quick search of "Bathurst Mount Panorama" on YouTube will give any motorsport fan a good idea as to what to expect in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, with the Yas Marina event going just next week. That should give you enough time to pick sides. glewis@thenational.ae