The drives of your life
Heading out to the golden dunes on a desert safari, enjoying a seven-star daiquiri at the top of the Burj Al Arab or finally making that visit to the camel souk – we all make promises that, one day, we’ll get around to savouring the best things the UAE has to offer. But James Fryer has something new to add to your growing list of must-dos, and that’s to be a racing driver for a day. He geared up to put Dubai Autodrome’s garage full of driving experiences to the test.
As my Nissan Sunny gracelessly bumbled into Dubai Autodrome’s racing school car park, the distinctive sound of racing engines going through their paces and tyres screeching as every last inch of rubber struggled to grip the asphalt rang out in the distance. Pure excitement set in as I joined the dozen customers anxiously pacing the gleaming checkerboard floor inside waiting for the briefing, and the drive of their lives, to begin.
As the men enviously stroked and drooled on the display vehicles, the women maintained rational conversation, discussing how strange it is nobody in Dubai ever drives a manual now. The Autodrome’s top instructors – James, Tarek and Michael – strolled in as if from a Days of Thunder set, ushering the rabble into a dark briefing room with a projector.
The next 20 minutes were spent studying the screen and watching Tarek imitate driving from his plastic chair, learning the basics of how to control the car and the rules of surviving on the track. We all hoped the racing lines, what the coloured cones on the track meant and what we should do in the event of a spin had sunk in, secretly taking comfort in the fact an instructor would be on hand at all times. After all, there’s no way they’d let us loose in their ridiculously expensive cars if there was even a whisper of doubt we might crash, right?
A brief stroll over to the 2.46 kilometre club circuit track and minutes later I was behind the wheel of an Audi A3 – the Autodrome’s entry-level car – trying to remember hand positions and listening to James’s well-tuned instructions. It’s the least powerful and most easy to drive of the cars available and, with electronic stabalisation and an automatic gearbox, the closest thing to taking a conventional road car out on the track.
But the 200 BHP turbo-charged engine soon had us out of the pits and at the brink of the first corner. It wasn’t as easy as it looked – I jammed on the brakes too hard, turned too quickly and nowhere near smoothly enough – only the car kept us on the track. A deep breath and I refocused, and after the first lap began to relax and glide the car into the corners, almost brushing against the apexes marked out with yellow cones, then accelerating out and hammering down the straights like a madman with a grin from ear to ear. If you’re not comfortable with a manual gearbox but you want to feel what it’s like to push a run around to the limits, visit the Autodrome, and avoid temptation to do it on Sheikh Zayed Road.
Standing at the helm of the next beast on the bill – a lustrous blue Subaru STI Impreza – I was reminded of teenagers who use too much hair gel and spend their waking hours watching The Fast and the Furious. But jumping inside there wasn’t a fluffy dice, Kenwood stereo or copy of Max Power magazine in sight. In fact, anything and everything that didn’t enhance performance had been promptly ripped out. Including the AC which means with the windows down you get the full effect of the growling, excessively loud engine. Breath on the gas and it sounds like the exhaust has fallen off and the engine is about to go up in a cloud of smoke – a strangely pleasurable assault on the eardrums.
The souped-up car seeps heat through every crevice of the cabin. Gripping the steering wheel and nearing 180km/h, I had to pay careful attention to the cones – blue to start braking and orange to come off the brake and turn – or was it the other way around? On more than one occasion I left it too late but, as Tarek put it, “a bit fast there, mate, but you got away with it.” Tightly strapped into a bucket seat, with a chunky helmet protecting your head, it’s all too easy to think you’re the daddy of the track.
Unleashing the car’s full power and getting used to manual gears again will soon make you realise how far that is from the truth. But you’ll not only leave the Subaru smiling, you’ll be paying your due respects to this monster at the same time – especially when the professionals take you for a high speed passenger ride.
The new GTS sports cars look like a strange crossbreed between a beach buggy, Morgan Roadster and something out of Mad Max. With no traction control, no ABS and only 180 BHP of pure power at your disposal, this is nothing but a feisty animal waiting for its chance to be unleashed. In-helmet microphones and earpieces mean you’ll be wired up to speak to and hear the instructor sitting to your side – and their calm advice is extremely comforting when you’re fully exposed to the elements and being taken aback by the world whizzing past.
But the speed quickly becomes addictive. I entered one corner too fast and was still struggling my way through the gears, felt the wheels shuddering, wavering and trying for dear life to stay on track. Seconds later, once the world around us had passed by a few times, we sat engulfed in a cloud of dust, having just spun off the asphalt and into the dirt. As we pulled back onto the track I paid closer attention to the racing lines, finally realising it’s the only way to really thunder through the circuit – and it doesn’t mean keeping your foot on the gas at all times. The GTS experience offers a raw racing experience that will suit anyone who wants to challenge themselves and experience something very, very different.
On reaching the Formula Dubai track I must have repeated the words “You’re sure I’m allowed to drive that?” a dozen times. I hadn’t been this excited since my eighth birthday when I received my first Scalectrix set. The Autodrome’s latest vehicles are remarkably close to conventional F1 cars – the only real differences being the size of the engine and the length of the vehicle, but with a 2000cc engine and 180BHP capable of boosting you to 100km/h in 3.9 seconds – any more power and you’d only be a danger to yourself.
After an additional trackside briefing you’ll need to master entering the car at its narrowest point, standing on the seat and then keeping your legs locked, lowering yourself down into the skimpy space by holding onto the sides until your lower half vanishes in front of you. Next there’s the dignified part of strapping the harness together between your legs, and pulling the shoulder straps so tight you can empathise with Houdini. A five-speed sequential gearbox shift takes some getting used to too, and a reasonable amount of force to do the job, but before long only your helmeted head will be poking out the top of the streamlined car as you charge forward with eyes firmly fixed on the pace vehicle in front – leading the way to keep you on the racing line and control any speed-demon antics.
There’s no better way to describe the experience than comparing it to a roller coaster ride which you’re fully in control of – but there’s no last minute changes of heart or closing your eyes and hoping it will all be over soon. The steering wheel is highly responsive to the slightest movement, and the slick black tyres skim across the track just a short distance in front of you, alongside the aerodynamic nose slicing through the air only a couple of inches off the ground. The booming engine behind you makes whatever speed you’re travelling at (there’s no speedometer) seem all the more impressive. But the best bit is seeing the pace car struggle after a few laps once you become more confident, and quicker around the circuit – demonstrating just how mediocre the Formula Dubai machines make your average, albeit expensive, road car look. Michael’s claim everyone leaves the F1 experience a happy customer has to be the understatement of the century.
As you head out toward Emirates Road and into the real world once more, there really should be a sign at the Autodrome’s exit to warn drivers “Remember – you’re not a racing driver!”. But up until that point for one whole day, even if you do usually drive a Nissan Sunny, you can at least pretend you are.
Experiences are priced at Dhs600 for the Audi A3 Turbo, Dhs900 for the Subaru STI Impreza, Dhs800 for the GTS sports cars and Dhs850 for the Formula Dubai cars. For more information and full details on all experiences available, call Dubai Autodrome on Tel: (04) 3678745 or visit www.dubaiautodrome.com.