Rallying through the ages


Thirty-two years ago, David Richards, a valourous rally enthusiast from England, took a phone call that would not only change his life, but also change the face of motor sports in the Middle East.

The call came from Rothmans International, a leading London-based tobacco manufacturer and prominent sponsor in the automotive industry. The firm was looking for somebody to help it organise a rally in Kuwait and believed Richards to be the right man for the job.

Richards was a professional rally co-driver who had made several appeals to Rothmans for corporate sponsorship. More importantly, he had recently established his own moor sports consultancy firm.

Richards explains: “Rothmans called and said: ‘We’re not ringing to sponsor your rally programme, we’re ringing to invite you to come out to the Middle East and organise a car rally for us.’

“Little did I know then, what I know now: that it would lead to such long-standing friendships in the region and so many business opportunities over the years.”

Before the 1976 Kuwait Rally, the Middle East was, according to Richards, in a “deadlock”. But the success of the region’s inaugural rally soon had him flying south to Qatar – a country he claims to have never heard of at the time – and then, later, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE.

Two years later, the Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) was created. It brought a heightened level of interest in motor sports to the region, attracted several drivers such as Kenyan WRC hero Shekhar Mehta, and produced talent of its own, including Qatari Saeed Al Hajri.

Al Hajri was soon signed to Richards’ newly formed Rothmans Porsche Rally Team, where he went on to win the MERC twice and become the first Arab to score points in the WRC. A feat Richards says was not unexpected.

“Saeed won the Middle East Championship in Qatar and competed regularly in the WRC, where he often finished in the top half-dozen,” says Richards. “But you’ve had a string of great drivers from the Middle East, from Saeed through to Mohammed Ben Sulayem and then, more recently, Nasser Al Attiyah. Nasser has had great results in the region so there is a history of success here.”

There is a new chapter set to be written in the annals of Middle East motor sport next weekend when, exactly three decades since the inaugural MERC, the region hosts its first FIA-sanctioned World Rally Championship event, the Rally Jordan.

“I always hoped we would get a World Championship rally in the region,” says Richards, who is now team principal for Subaru’s WRC team. “Many years ago I was pushing for it for the Gulf and I thought Oman was the ideal location, but I am so pleased it is Jordan because the enthusiasm from the late King Hussein down through his two sons has been great encouragement for that area. In my view there are really only two possible locations in the Gulf – Jordan and Oman. Geographically the roads lend themselves to a WRC event there. Qatar and Bahrain are too small and the other countries just don’t have the right terrain.”

The man-made track near Amman has been in the pipeline since 2005, but three years and $10m (Dh36.7m) later, Mikko Hirvonen, Sebastien Loeb and co will take to a set of stages that is 90 per cent different to the originally produced blueprint.

The world’s best drivers now need to race on roads around the Dead Sea. At minus 400 metres below sea level, the area is recorded as the lowest point on earth not covered by water. As well as that many of the drivers are from Scandinavia, so to be driving in temperatures in excess of 40 degrees celsius, will be a new, sweaty experience. But while Norwegian Petter Solberg bakes in his Subaru Impreza, his team principal Richards couldn’t be more delighted with the FIA’s decision to bring the WRC to the Middle East.

“I think it’s important people realise the pivotal role this region is going to play in the motor sports industry in the future,” says Richards, who as well as being CEO and chairman of Subaru operators, Prodrive, is also chairman of Aston Martin.

“The economics of this area speak for itself. If you look at the GDP appreciation of $2.5trn, it’s virtually the same as the UK. But more importantly, if you look at the  growth potential in the area, this region is on a six per cent-growth in current years, so it’s growing faster than anywhere else in the world. That in itself offers extraordinary opportunities.”

One such opportunity organisers are keen to exploit takes place next week. Rally Jordan’s marketing department has been preparing months ahead of the spectacle, which gets under way on Thursday. More than 500,000 car bumper stickers have been produced, daily adverts are published in all the local newspapers and an omnipresent countdown clock appears on the nation’s main television channel.

Jordan is experiencing rally fever and it all started with a phone call.