UAE's first 'grand prix' nearly faded into memory

Stirling Moss, Nigel Mansell and a "token Belgian" came to Dubai for the first incarnation of international motorsport in the country.

Program of advertising the Dubai Grand Prix 1981
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

If you know where to look, the clues are out there. An unsold embroidered cloth patch that appeared on eBay for £2 at the end of last month; a single short clip on YouTube, capturing a collision between three Ford Capris against the backdrop of Dubai's Hyatt Regency Hotel; a souvenir programme of "this rather odd event in December 1981", for sale on a collectors' website for a princely £22.

But perhaps the best echo of the now almost forgotten grand prix that never was can be found in the layout of the roads around Dubai's Corniche.

Where today frustrated commuters crawl slowly in and out of Deira the titans of motorsport once raced - men including Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Denny Hulme and Juan Manuel Fangio.

Parts of today's Corniche Road and Al Khaleej Road were created as two sides of the UAE's first motor racing circuit, a 2.6 kilometre track built from scratch in 1981 in the sand around the then new and isolated Hyatt Regency.

The list of drivers who took part in what was billed as the Dubai Grand Prix on December 4, 1981 was as long as it was improbable - and it wasn't only the stars of yesteryear who came to town for the two-day event.

That year's Formula One season had concluded in Las Vegas on October 19, with the Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet claiming what would prove to be the first of his three championship titles. Piquet didn't come to Dubai, but the contemporary Formula One grid was represented by John Watson, Nigel Mansell - then in only the second of his 15 years in Formula One - Keke Rosberg and Brian Henton.

In truth, the Dubai Grand Prix, staged under the patronage of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates, had no business calling itself a grand prix. Despite the big names, it was a peculiarly small-time and almost wholly British affair. That was certainly the impression of Sir Stirling Moss, now 81, who is considered by many to have been the best all-round racing driver the world has ever seen and, despite his years, still competing in classic-car races. "It was a fun thing. There was nothing serious about it," he says.

The Dubai Grand Prix was organised by Martin Hone, a British entrepreneur and amateur Porsche racer who had, since the late 1960s, been trying to persuade Birmingham City Council that what his hometown really needed was an annual motor race on its streets. Dubai was to prove a dry run. Five years after the Dubai Grand Prix, Hone got his way and, from 1986 to 1990, the Birmingham Superprix hosted a range of motor races on a 3.8 kilometre circuit around the city centre.

"I knew him and he called me, because I was reasonably well known, I suppose," says Moss. Dubai was "a fun thing to go to… Fantastic food, good weather and the people were nice".

The tone was set by an opening parade that featured saloon cars, beach buggies, go-karts, hotel floats, a police marching band and - presumably on the nearby Gulf waters - a demonstration by Dubai Water-Ski Club. If that wasn't enough, the parade was led by Walt Cunningham, a retired NASA astronaut who had orbited the Earth in 1967 as one of the three-man crew of Apollo 7.

The first event was a 10-lap, celebrity one-make saloon-car race. Thanks to the commercial interests of the event's main sponsor, Moss and the other famous drivers found themselves competing in the Citroen CX.

It was, recalls Moss, a little less testing than his celebrated victory at Monaco in 1961, when, driving an outclassed Lotus-Climax, he kept the Ferraris of Phil Hill and Richie Ginther at bay for all 100 laps.

Fifth on that historic day in Monaco was Dan Gurney, an American driving for Porsche, and Moss was pleased to see him again in Dubai. Neither man, it is fair to say, took that meeting quite as seriously as the one 20 years earlier.

"Dan Gurney, I seem to remember, was going around throwing sand on the track, pushing people off and all sorts of things," Moss chuckles. "In fact, I was pushed off by Dan, I think."

Before the start, some of the drivers had "suggested that when they dropped the flag the cars at the front should all start off in reverse. But I think that was thrown out as being possibly more hazardous than was needed".

Len Chapman, an Australian who came to Dubai in 1971 as an engineer to help build what became Port Rashid and ended up staying for three decades, remembers the grand prix well. "It was organised partly to promote Dubai and Jebel Ali port, but it never really took off," he says.

It would be another 28 years before Formula One proper came to the UAE. Nevertheless, "it was very popular", Chapman says. "We went both days. Dubai was cut off from everything then" - the road to Abu Dhabi had been completed only the year before - "so anything like that attracted attention. A lot of people were there, whether they liked motor racing or not."

Chapman, now 73, retired back to Australia in 2003 but still maintains his website, Dubai as it Used to Be, which features a copy of the race programme. Most of the Citroens, he remembers, "got stuffed into the guard rail. At the end virtually none of the cars were what you might call serviceable".

Fangio did not take part in the celebrity race. The Argentinian - otherwise know as El Maestro - dominated the first decade of Formula One, taking five world championships between 1950 and 1958, and becoming synonymous with such classic Grand Prix cars as the Mercedes-Benz W196 and the Maserati 250F. Perhaps he could not bring himself to sit in a Citroen CX.

He was, however, reunited in Dubai with his old Mercedes teammate Moss, and the two men drove demonstration laps in a Mercedes and a Maserati. The event very nearly became tragically memorable when Fangio, then 70 years old, suffered a suspected heart attack, though he recovered after a week in hospital. He lived to the age of 84, dying in Buenos Aires in 1995.

Hone's achievement in Dubai was impressive. With no cars, marshalls, drivers or even track in the UAE, he had imported the lot, creating the whole spectacle from scratch in just a few months. True, actual modern Formula One cars were thin on the ground - three, including the Lotus in which the American driver Mario Andretti had become world champion in 1978, drove demonstration laps - but there was still a decent amount of competitive action on the track.

Somehow, Hone had managed to persuade the UK Aston Martin Owners' Club to despatch 16 of their members, along with a priceless collection of hardware, ranging from a 1948 Spa Special to a 1962 DB4GT. Other than a single Frenchman, the entire field contesting the Pace Petroleum Aston Martin Trophy Race was composed of Britons.

Next, 15 contenders from the British Saloon Car Racing Championship - 14 Brits and a token Belgian - fought it out in a fleet dominated by Ford Capris. It was, incidentally, the Belgian Jean-Michel Martin who caused the three-car shunt immortalised on YouTube.

Fourteen more British drivers -accompanied this time by a lone German, driving a 1967 Porsche 910 - then took part in The Marlboro Cup, a race for classic sports cars. In all probability the Nick Mason who drove a 1970 Ferrari 512S was none other than the Pink Floyd drummer of the same name, who had a passion for classic racing cars and who at that time was competing regularly in the Le Mans 24-hour race.

The final event of the day was a race for local drivers in what was left of the Citroens; nine Brits, one Swede and an American took part. Two Emiratis were also listed. It is not known whether Major Saeed Khalfan and Lieutenant Abdullah Omar actually took part in this race, but if they did they had the honour of being the first Emiratis to compete on a motor racing circuit in the UAE.

Moss is full of enthusiasm for the expansion of Formula One since his day and says he will be glued to his television to watch the season's showdown in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Today's top drivers, he believes, "are obviously of Fangio's standard, no doubt about it; Alonso, Hamilton, Webber and Vettel, if they were of that era I'm sure they would have done as well as any of us".

Nevertheless, and despite the career-ending head injury he sustained at Goodwood in 1961 - the subject of a new DVD, Hammond Meets Moss, featuring Moss in conversation with the Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond - he thinks "it's a shame that they aren't able to enjoy driving on something that's a bit dangerous. "Driving with an enormous run-off zone is nowhere near as exhilarating to a driver, if he has the capability, as driving between two rock walls."

And, despite the fortunes earned by today's drivers, "I wouldn't swap my time for now, that's for sure. If I won a race I'd go out and chase crumpet. Lewis Hamilton has to go and speak to Vodafone."

Jonathan Gornall is a features writer at The National.