An international sport event hosted in Saudi Arabia
People of the Desert
The people of Saudi Arabia have their origins in the desert. Even though the vast majority of the population now reside in cities and towns, there is still an immense fondness for evenings spent under the stars, away from the ever expanding city centres, with groups of friends gathering to do some of the things Saudis hold dear: making kabse over the fire, grilling BBQ, drinking tea and coffee, staying up and talking into the early hours of the morning.
Modern Saudi Arabia has embraced car culture, and in the cities a day doesn’t pass without a person seeing first hand Saudi youth trying to pull some tricks with a family sedan – a practice which is frowned upon by most, except the perpetrators, as being dangerous to those who are performing such stunts as well as to other motorists and their families.
Motorsports in the Desert
In response to these feelings, it makes sense for there to be an outlet incorporating both elements, and the Ha’il Rally was the first motorsports event in the kingdom to seize the initiative.
The first rally was in 2006, and is held annually. Since then it has been run as an official FIA Baha competition, part if the world championship, as well as a more locally focused event. The popularity increases every year and has proven a major boost to tourism in a region which for many years was overlooked in comparison with other parts of Saudi Arabia.
Before the action starts there is a thorough scrutineering process, which sees international experts (who are involved with various Formula 1 events) checking the vehicles to make sure they comply to strict safety standards (as laid down by the world motorsport governing body, the FIA) as well as to engine specifications according to which class the vehicle will be competing in.
A Motorsports Extravaganza
The first day of racing is a showcase for the spectators. The teams drive a course of between four and six kilometers, aiming to finish in the quickest possible time to gain the best starting position for the desert stages.
The next few days sees the drivers speeding over the desert course, checking in at the waypoints, and returning to the service park in the afternoon.
A desert course is not an easy one to navigate. Teams are provided with road books showing the exact route they are supposed to take, and must not rely on GPS. (There are strict penalties for those who try.) The navigator must be alert constantly to make sure the waypoints are driven through (again, there are penalties for missed waypoints), and to make sure the vehicle sticks to the prescribed route, and doesn’t risk an accident by jumping a sand dune or crashing into rocks that are obscured from view. The drivers are not out for a weekend cruise, they travel at speeds in excess of 100 km/h for parts of the course.
With a reputation that heightens every year, the Ha’il Rally attracts professionals involved in regional and international championships (the 2011 winner, Nasser Al-Attiyah came fresh from having won the Dakar Rally and is now competing successfully in the World Rally Championship) as well as talented and enthusiastic locals.
KSA produces some talented drivers. Both Abdullah Bakhashab (now retired) and Yazeed Al-Rajhi (currently enjoying a string of rally successes) are well known faces at the Ha’il Rally.
There are areas in the desert stages where spectators can view the racing, but safety comes first and these areas have to be closely monitored to ensure no lives are endangered. That said, there are always a few people who prefer to get a closer view, and the local police take great joy in pursuing such groups and shepherding then to safety.
The rally has the full support of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (who actually organize the racing component) as well as the Governor of Ha’il and his family. It is a huge boost to the local economy, as flights, hotels and restaurants are booked out like no other time of the year.
Every year there are more side events added: hill climbs, drag racing, local market, vehicle experiences, just to name a few. For the 10th Anniversary the Royal Saudi Air Force even flew a display at the official opening.
The Ha’il Rally is one of the largest, most successful events in the kingdom. It is an opportunity to see some skilful racing, and to experience some authentic local culture, and is well worth a visit even for a couple of days.
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An international sport event hosted in Saudi Arabia (author: Andy Conder)