One of the stalwarts of Middle East motor racing, Dubai’s GulfSport Racing, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. In this article, GulfSport boss Barry Hope looks back at a decade of bringing track racing to the region.
Guest Author – Barry Hope
In the summer of 2002 Oxford Brookes university undergraduate and racing driver Martin Hope, and his father Barry, were living in the UK. News of FIA Grade 1 race circuits being built in Bahrain and Dubai, countries where the Hope family had previously enjoyed living, got them thinking about turning their hobby into a business.
Barry developed new business for a management consultancy and Martin, who had been racing for nine years at this point was having to consider his options post graduation. An enjoyable life in Oxford sharing a student house with mates who had an equally deep interest in race engineering and driving would soon come to an end. Then what? Professional race driver? No. Work for an engineering company? Maybe. Set up a motorsport business? Possibly.
Back in 1977, British software house ICL Dataskil had recruited Barry to design and implement computer systems for the Sheikh Rashid Hospital in Dubai. At that time, the population of Dubai was around 180,000 and the place was in the middle of its first major development cycle. But as there was nothing for those interested in two-wheeled motorsport, Barry and his wife Dot, who were both experienced motorcyclists, decided to bring a new sport to the UAE: Motocross.
Their Dubai Dirt Donks club put on a regular season of exciting races at a Supercross track they built on the old Al Nasr Football Club ground, adjacent to the handily placed Sheikh Rashid Hospital. The Dubai Motocross Championship, which started in 1978, would become the longest running motorsport event in the UAE.
As is often the case here, a short-term project turned into a decade-long stay and in 1987 they returned to the UK with their two young children and fond memories from a life-changing period of their lives.
Fast forward 15 years and the Hope family, who had become deeply involved in motorsport, decided to return to the Arabian Gulf to start a motor racing business. A distributor agreement was signed with Tim Greaves at Radical Sportcars in January 2004 and with encouragement and support from friends John Stanley and Andrew Lemon, GulfSport Racing was born in Bahrain.
In June 2004, armed only with a toolbox, a Brian James trailer and two Radical sportscars, Martin set up the first GulfSport office in David Richard’s BAR Honda F1 team villa at the Bahrain International Circuit, ably assisted by his Oxford housemate Mark Wynn (who now works as a product support engineer for McLaren GT). Another Oxford housemate, Formula Renault BARC champion Nicky Wilson, Barry and son-in-law Gary Francis would make the occasional seven-hour flight with Gulf Air from the UK whenever required to support the various track driving and training activities that Martin and Mark organised.
Eight months later, with only two new Radicals sold they realised that in order to have a viable business they would need a much larger market and so their fledgling business was relocated to the Dubai Autodrome while Bahrain hosted its second Formula One Grand Prix in April 2005. Shortly afterwards, an unexpected phone call from the McLaren F1 team in Woking would see GulfSport transporting Kimi Raikkonen’s MP4/21 Formula 1 car along Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road for a demo run when Emirates Airline announced their sponsorship of the team. Kimi was instructed to look after the engine and told not do donuts as the car was onward bound for the F1 GP in Japan. Kimi did donuts.
The move to Dubai necessitated a local partner and it was Andrew Lemon who introduced Martin and Barry to Ghassan Shalabi who owns a leading regional private equity investment group. With Ghassan’s interest and support, GulfSport was able to flourish and opened a retail business specialising in racewear and equipment to support the rapid development of motorsport that was taking place across the region.
Moving to Dubai had opened up all kinds of interesting possibilities, one of which was the organisation of a support race for Sheikh Maktoum Hasher’s first A1 Grand Prix to be held at the Dubai Autodrome in December 2005. It was this opportunity that enabled GulfSport to demonstrate their technical and organisational expertise and promote plans for a new one-make sportscar championship in the UAE called the Gulf Radical Cup.
The subsequent Radical Sportscar Trophy support races showcased the UK’s best Radical racers in action over two days of racing. They were understandably stunned to see young GulfSport mechanic Nicky Wilson on pole position for the feature race in Ghassan’s SR8 though! The success of this event was instrumental in attracting drivers to the Gulf Radical Cup, which got underway the following month.
The number one supporter of the new race series was Al Nabooda Porsche-sponsored racer Karim Al Azhari who not only purchased a new Radical SR3, but also persuaded several of his friends to invest likewise. So a small grid of competitive racers kicked off the new, with Barry making up the numbers. With all the cars being imported, maintained and supported at the race track by Team GulfSport, it soon established itself as the race series for the serious gentleman racer and grew over those early years to include many other drivers.
Since 2004 GulfSport has sold forty Radical cars, the most recent of which was a new SR8 to a race team in Angola and a fully restored 420bhp SR8 which Martin runs for a customer in Malaysia. The UAE’s one-make Radical series – now run by AUH Motorsport – is now in its ninth season.
The CEO of Caparo Vehicle Technologies, Angad Paul, invited GulfSport to launch and provide local customer support for the amazing 320kph Caparo T1 in the Middle East. The T1 had been developed by two of Gordon Murray’s McLaren F1 engineers and was billed as a ‘Formula 1 car for the road’. It beat the Top Gear Power Board leader’s time of 1:17.6 then held by the Koenigsegg CCX by no less than seven seconds. GulfSport’s Martin Hope and Gary Francis visited the UK factory and a test session at Silverstone where the T1 was put through its paces. This association resulted in a spectacular launch event where GulfSport re-assembled a T1 show car in the lounge of a luxury apartment on the 38th floor of Dubai’s most expensive tower block, Le Rêve.
Bassam Kronfli was invited to test the T1 on the Dubai Autodrome Club Circuit in the middle of summer 2008. Despite a very dusty track he broke the lap record by six seconds to set a best time of 56.4 seconds. Bassam remarked at the time that with better conditions he could probably take another five seconds off that lap time. Yet the 550kgs / 570bhp Caparo T1 – though a lot of fun to work with – proved to be too extreme even for Dubai and car #001 was eventually returned to the factory along with the factory show car.