Dubai: AUH Motorsport’s glass-fronted office and workshop looks out over the Dubai Autodrome from the western corner. Being a Tuesday in sweltering Dubai, the circuit is empty. The grandstand is on the far side, the red seats notably sun-faded. A plastic bag rolls lightly over the track in front of Daytona House. The only engine noise comes from the nearby Mohammad Bin Zayed Road.
It’s a far cry from when I was last at the circuit for the Hankook 24Hours of Dubai back in January.
Summer is close-season for UAE motorsport. It’s far too hot for racing, for both man and machine. The serious drivers are all off in the cooler climes of Europe, and the downtime is when those in the UAE’s surprisingly large motorsport industry are preparing for the new season which starts in late September.
For AUH Motorsport, though, the summer is anything but downtime.
Carl Rolaston, managing director of AUH Motorsports, has brought the FIA’s single-make junior series, Formula 4, to the UAE. The new series kicks off in October later this year.
There is a lot of pressure on Carl to make the series work, a pressure that I do not envy. Yet he seems relaxed as we sit down overlooking the empty Autodrome.
I suppose when you have the firm support of Mohammad Bin Sulayem and his Automobile & Touring Club, the FIA’s appointed governing body in the UAE, you know you are not going to be left high and dry.
Formula 4 is an FIA-launched initiative. It is a standardised junior racing formula for those young hopefuls looking to step up from karting. It is, therefore, only wise that the ATC actively backs the UAE’s promotor.
Running a series is not easy. In fact ask any series promotor what is involved and they will likely say they don’t know why they bother. There is little money to be made and there are always business-damaging and wild accusations from competitors when things are not going their way.
So, why bother?
For the love of racing.
AUH Motorsports have a big task on their hands to get Formula 4 up and running in the UAE, and then to grow it sensibly one season at a time. “We will make this work” says Carl as we sit down to chat about how things are going.
Martin Fullard: How much interest has there been in the series?
Carl Rolaston: It is fair to say the response has been a lot better than we envisaged. We have had around 62-63 drivers register their interest from all over the world – the Middle East, South America, across Europe and the US. The driver response has been good.
Certainly I have no doubt that some of those interested will not be able to afford it and for them it may just stay a dream.
Even so, we are confident there is a good number of drivers out there with sufficient interest and funds that will come racing.
Our original plan was to have 10 cars with local teams. We have achieved that, so that forms a healthy base for the series. Hopefully it will grow to 12, 14.
The 10 teams signed up include two from Qatar, Mohammad Bin Sulayem personally, Abu Dhabi Racing have a team thanks to racing driver Khaled Al Qubaisi, former Yas Marina Circuit CEO Richard Cregan has two teams, and there are three from Europe.
MF: Tell me about the cars, I understand they are the same as what is used in Europe.
CR: We looked at Europe and identified that the Abarth engine is the most common unit being used, with 125 cars running it. The other option was Ford, but there are only about 25 cars using that engine at the moment.
So we thought that if you want to attract teams from Europe it is better that they can bring their cars as they are and compete with us without needing to make any expensive changes.
Until now we have had 33 European teams who have expressed interest, particularly from Germany. I’m off to Imola [in San Marino] this month to talk to some Italian teams who are very keen to know more. Our original target was to have five teams from Europe, but I would very disappointed if that is not 10, 15 or maybe more.
MF: So European teams and drivers are free to race here in the UAE subject to having the correct license?
CR: Yes. The fact that our series runs over the winter months is very appealing to them. Europe races over the summer, so the winter is a quiet time. Drivers can keep sharp by racing in our good weather. It is great for all of us.
MF: Let’s talk money. How much is a driver going to need to make the step up to Formula 4?
CR: The target budget set by the FIA is €100,000 (Dh410,000 appx). We believe that if you own a car you can do the series for about €70,000 (Dh285,000 appx).
If you do a buy a car then obviously the cash goes into the car for the first year, but you then have the value for subsequent years. So we believe we can get to around the €85,000 (Dh347,000 appx) mark.
We have not set a financial limit as our model hands that responsibility to the teams. Different teams will offer different products. Aside from the car, some teams will offer additional coaching, additional race support, test days, and we do not feel that we should be obliged to be involved in the commercial arrangements between teams and drivers.
There will be some very sophisticated teams and some very simple teams, and it is up to teams and drivers to negotiate that between themselves. But we believe it can be done for less than €100,000 (Dh410,000 appx).
MF: Just how important is Formula 4 to an aspiring racing drivers’ career?
CR: It is very important. It was originally set up because there were so many different series around the world that were all competing to attract young drivers, all offering them a start but there was no consistent standard.
The FIA have introduced the standard and there is now a global Formula 4 brand. You can go and race in 12 countries this year and that will grow as it becomes more developed.
If you have a driver who races in Formula 4 here, he or she can go to Europe or the US next year and progress there – it is all identical.
I think it is a good introduction to motorsport. It is the next step on the ladder to Formula 1 after karting. Although that may only apply to one or two drivers with exceptional skills and exceptional finance.
The reality is that a lot of drivers will go on from Formula 4 into other series, such as sports cars or as instructors. It is a huge step into a career in motorsport.
MF: Are young drivers going to get noticed racing in Formula 4 here?
CR: Yes. Of course to some degree it depends on the press as to whether we get the exposure. We are looking at TV coverage. It is very expensive as you can imagine. Networks are happy to air programs but won’t produce them so there is a cost there which we are looking to resolve.
In a worst case scenario we will have reports, previews, and features online. With European teams coming out, our local drivers who demonstrate exceptional skill and the right attitude will be in clear sight, and there is no reason why they cannot get picked up by European teams.
MF: How does Europe view racing in the Middle East?
CR: If you look at the Dubai 24Hour, the Formula 1 in Bahrain, the Formula 1 in Abu Dhabi, you look at GP2 and GP3 testing, the European teams know what is available here. They see the series as a championship in its own right, but they also see it as an ideal opportunity for their drivers to get winter seat time and winter testing. They can use our series to attract new drivers.
Traditionally anyone who wanted to go racing had to leave home and go to Europe. Now with Formula 4, if you have a young driver in India who wants to go racing they no longer have to go to Europe. They can come here. Keep his schooling going, race in the series and move on.
With having European drivers here it gives local drivers a good test. There will be some who may recognise that they are not quite good enough. But there will be others who will discover their talents and that they are match for European drivers. We are upping the ante by comparing people’s abilities.
MF: What is your message to young drivers?
CR: The biggest hurdle is finance. Motorsport is not a cheap recreation. Any driver starting out is unlikely to get sponsorship. The biggest sponsor is mum and dad. Generally it’s very difficult to go out into the market place and get sponsors- big teams have trouble doing that let alone untested young drivers. But there may be friends, family friends etc. The budget is the most difficult thing – but it is not impossible. Hard, but not impossible.