The UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi produced a stunning fightback to win the Dubai International Rally in sensational fashion today and snatch the FIA Middle East Championship drivers’ title away from Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah.
Al Qassimi emerged victorious by a margin of just 0.3 seconds after a thrilling start-to-finish battle with Al Attiyah to deny his great rival an eighth successive win in Dubai and a tenth Middle East crown.
Everything came down to the final special stage of the season, a 25.92km section which started with the Emirati driver leading by 0.4 seconds after he had produced a brilliant surge to win the previous stage by 6.1 seconds.
Al Qassimi, partnered by Chris Patterson in his Abu Dhabi Racing Citroen DS3, held his nerve to record his third win in Dubai and land his second Middle East triumph.
“We pushed to the limit but it was very difficult”, said an emotional Al Qassimi, who had been determined to produce a home victory ahead of UAE National Day.
"On the last stage I had a flat tyre but I got through it.
"If we’re going to be in the record books now it’s not just my name that’s going there, it’s also the name of Citroen because of what we’ve done together.”
Victory had looked to be in the grasp of Al Attiyah, for whom the rally signalled the end of a hugely successful six-year partnership with Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini.
“We are quite happy we did a really good job here,” he said at the finish.
“We are not slow but were really surprised about Khalid’s times in the afternoon.
"I knew it would not be easy and that we really needed to concentrate all the time.”
Finishing third in the rally, and in the championship, was Qatar’s Al Kuwari, with fellow-countryman Khalid Al Suwaidi, the UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi and another Qatari, Abdulla Al Kuwari, completing the top six in Dubai.
From the start on Friday, however, as Al Qassimi won the first two stages, only for Al Attiyah to take the last three, it was clear that this was becoming a classic two-car tussle for supremacy which put all other events in the shade.
Leading by 6.8 seconds overnight, Al Attiyah increased his advantage to 12.2 secs over the first of the day’s six stages to begin an intriguing tussle which meant the outcome was in doubt up to the last kilometre.
Immediately, Al Qassimi reduced the deficit to 10.3 seconds, before it became 11.8 secs and then just 5.7 seconds as the Citroen and the Ford were pushed to the limit, especially over a frantic final stage which Al Attiyah took by 0.1 seconds to fall agonisingly short.
The result will undoubtedly find its way into the record books of FIA international rallying for producing the narrowest margin to decide a championship title.
The 2014 FIA Middle East Rally Championship is set for a dramatic climax, with Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah and the UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi locked in a tense fight to the finish in the 36th Dubai International Rally.
Al Attiyah and Giovanni Bernacchini in a Ford Fiesta RRC lead by 6.8 seconds over Al Qassimi and Chris Patterson in their Citroen DS3 following a fascinating day long duel between the two great rivals.
The Emirati driver must now produce one of the best drives of his career on the second leg if he is to beat defending champion Al Attiyah into second place in Dubai and snatch away his Middle East title by a single championship point.
Lying third, Qatari Abdulaziz Al Kuwari had also started the day with his sights still on the Middle East crown, but his hopes faded as he fell another 1:45.7 seconds adrift of in third place on the day.
Al Qassimi made his intentions clear from the start by winning the first two stages, before sharing the fastest time on the next with Al Attiyah who went on to win the last three.
In the end Al Qassimi, who is hoping to start UAE National Day celebrations early with a double title success, was left regretting the ten seconds penalty he collected for a jump start on the day’s opening stage.
Looking calm and relaxed, Al Attiyah said: “I cleared the road on the first three stages and didn’t take any risks. We’re ok, and in the second loop we will know all the lines and it will be easier for us.
And so it proved as the Qatari, chasing an eighth Dubai Rally victory in a row and a tenth Middle East title forced his way into the lead.
It is unheard of for the championship to reach the final round in Dubai with three drivers still in the title race, although it would take major problems for the top two on the final leg to now let in Abdulaziz Al Kuwari,
His prospects had already dwindled over the first three stages. “The first stage was a shock for me because Khaled and Nasser were very fast,” he said.
“I don’t where I left anything out on this stage. The second stage I overshot one corner and lost at least ten seconds. Then the last stage I was driving with front wheel (drive) when we broke the rear drive shaft after four or five kms.”
Among the casualties on the day were the UAE’s Rashid Al Ketbi who retired when his Ford Fiesta RRCs lost a wheel mid way through the day’s third special stage, and Nishad Kochumohamed who went out when his Ford rolled on the first stage. Driver and co-driver Sajiin Gangadhran were unhurt.
The Gumball Rally comes to Dubai this weekend when its creator Maximillion Cooper brings around 40 cars to be part of Dubai Motor Festival’s Grand Parade. He took some time to talk to Sport360° editor Steve McKenlay about how the Gumball, a 3000 mile road trip over seven days featuring a variety of cars from the exotic to the insane, has become such a huge global brand and reveals that the UAE may one day host part of the Gumball.
What led you into the world of Gumball?
I went to art school in London where I was doing a fashion degree and was in the same class as Alexander McQueen and Stella McC-artney so I was mixing with very creative people. For six or seven years I was also a racing driver in various levels of motorsport. I started in Formula Ford and worked my way up to single seaters. I also raced in the Porsche Super Cup so I had this racing background and a whole bunch of diverse friends who went on to be heads of industry like McQueen and Stella McCartney.
I was also into skateboarding and did that at a high level and made friends with people like Tony Hawk who became a household name. I thought if I could put what was a powerful and eclectic bunch of people in the same room together I could create something they could all enjoy. We had skateboarders, designers, graffiti artists, bankers, racing team owners, musicians, and models. So I got 50 of my friends together and arranged a six-day drive around Europe with parties each night and that’s how it kicked off in April, 1999.
Were these people into exotic cars?
Cars were a focal point but I think the real attraction was creating a brand that was appealing and exciting to all of them, whether they were a banker or a skateboarder. Also, it’s not really a supercar rally. The cars reflect people’s personalities so, yes, there are billionaires on the rally in their hypercars but sometimes you also have someone driving an E-Type Jag or a fifties Bentley.
Where did the name Gumball come from?
I had been racing for some big corporations and visited some exotic place, like Monaco for example, and they were spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on these parties and generally they were really dull and corporate compared to other parties I was going to in London which were part of the fashion scene which had no money but put on an amazing event. I wanted to bring that quality to a car event. That’s why it works. Gumball is a word that in the eighties was used to describe popular culture, like chewing gum, how you chew it up and you spit it out, a famous for five minutes kind of thing. Also, because it was a rally it was like a ball rolling from a to b so it’s got that double meaning of getting from one place to another while creating a popular cultural brand.
How many rallies have you had since 1999 and are you surprised by its a success?
There has been one every year since and I guess I knew that putting these people together would create something interesting and newsworthy. For example, in that first rally Chris Eubank drove it in his monster truck, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell took part, as did Jay Kay from Jamiroquai, Tony Hawk, Johnny Knoxville from Jackass, bankers and a Saudi Prince. It got incredible newspaper and magazine coverage. So it became very apparent that I should do it each year because it was a great way of bringing together celebrity names and creating a unique adventure.
How much does it cost to stage?
I bankrolled the first one and ended up a couple of hundred thousand pounds in debt but the incredible coverage attracted media and sponsors who wanted to be part of it and by the second year I had some pretty heavyweight sponsorship deals which eased the financial burden.
By this time I had decided not to treat it like a supercar run or normal rally. I wanted to bring a completely different mindset to it. Half my friends are car fanatics and the other half aren’t. They are in it for the parties and the social scene so it couldn’t just be about the cars.
MTV got on board for the third rally and followed the guys from Jackass and the show they made was a massive success so in the US the brand recognition went sky high and some big sponsorship deals started to come in, from Hasbro toys to Sony Playstation who made a video game of the Gumball. Within a five year period we had gone from an idea of putting something on which was pretty unique and nobody really knew what it was about to turning over tens of millions so it was an exciting growth and on track to being what it set out to be, not just a car rally but more about brands and lifestlyle.
Did you really think combining car rallies and racing with this amazing celebrity party scene would be a recipe for success?
Anyone who has done the Gumball Rally is going to talk about it for the rest of their lives because it is a complete contrast to everything else in the greater scheme of things. It kind of became an exclusive club but now it is 5000 strong. It’s an incredibly powerful group of people, many in the Forbes List of the wealthiest people in the world and I didn’t factor that kind of networking in when I started this. The Gumball Rally has opened doors to business opportunities all around the world.
It also appeals to the not-so-rich, right?
Absolutely, and that is really important to me. The rally is still the focal point for everything we do and it attracts hundreds of thousands of people. It’s aspirational as a brand and it has become a bucket list things where people say that one day they want to do the Gumball.
It costs £40,000 per two-man car but is it possible for anyone to enter the Gumball?
Yes, I have had many people on the rally over the years who haven’t got the money but they went out and raised it between them from sponsorships but the demand for places is far greater than the availability.
The entry is capped at 120 cars, a large enough number to make an impact in any city but small enough to be manageable. Most of the places are taken each year but we are maybe looking at around 30 or 40 new cars for each rally which isn’t that many so it is not just about having the money, you need to be interesting.
Just being a billionaire or a prince doesn’t mean you will get on the rally. It’s about how we can make it diverse so you have a great chance of getting on the rally if you have got a LaFerrari or something really incredible but you have an equally good chance if you want to do it in a Mini Cooper. It’s about being a fun person. It’s also important to know that this is not a race. It is roadtrip adventure of a lifetime with an incredible social scene.
Is there a danger that the Gumball is now over-organised and could become boring?
What has kept it unique and evolving is that we never use the same route twice. We always try to incorporate totally unique places and interesting people to keep it fresh.
Is there any chance of the Gumball Rally ever starting or finishing in the UAE?
We already have some influential people from the Middle East generally who take part. I am sure we can incorporate it at some point bec-ause it seems a natural fit. We could fly into the UAE and maybe incorporate two or three days of the rally here. I can see it happening in a couple of years so it would be nice to talk to the right people about that.