Back in 1981, the UAE - Dubai in particular - was a very different place. None of the skyscrapers, highways and malls existed. Instead, there was a sense of hopeful opportunity.
That said, the UAE was proud of its history. It had been 10 years since the country had gained its unity and celebrations were in order. Dubai's Police Chief at the time and his second-in-command were at a local motorsport parade in Birmingham, UK, when something clicked - why not bring high-profile motorsport to the UAE to mark the occasion? It may have helped that both men were members of the Al Nasr Motor Sports Club...
The groundwork was laid and nine months of serious planning later, the Dubai Grand Prix made its international debut in December 1981. Hosted at a newly-laid street circuit around the Hyatt International Hotel in Deira, no holds were barred in making the GP an event that would put Dubai on the map and the driver list definitely reinforced that idea.
A televised event, the Dubai GP also drew large crowds. Once the inaugural parade had ended, the cars were fired up and made ready. The day would be divided into four classes: cars from the British Saloon Car Championship, the Supersports series for 1970s racing cars, a race for historic Aston Martins and a separate contest for Formula One drivers in Citroen CXs.
While the cars were the main attraction, the men at the wheel brought a different level of attention. Motorsport luminaries like Derek Bell, Stirling Moss, Sir Jack Brabham, Richard Attwood and Caroll Shelby were all taking part in the racing that day. Tom Walkinshaw of TWR was racing a Galadari Motors-sponsored Mazda RX-7!
Of course, we would be remiss in leaving out the actual stars - the cars! Lola T70s, Ferrari 275LMs and a 330P, McLaren M1B and an M1C, Aston Martin DBR1 and numerous other "motorsport poster cars" lined up on the starting grid according to their categories. A Porsche 917 didn't make the grid after being accidentally dropped from a helicopter winch and subsequently catching fire!
Once the flag dropped, all bets were off and some of the drivers took that quite literally. Trying to find the best line against the competition, some of the drivers went off road in the process of cutting corners, dragging sand onto the track, reducing grip and making a difficult race even more challenging. Suffice to say, the spectators were very well-entertained that day.
The race was not short of glamour either. Pink Floyd's Nick Mason was part of the starting grid in a Ferrari 512S that had raced at Le Mans the previous year. Even the expats who took part in the final race had interesting backgrounds - petroleum engineers, pilots and even a former SAS man!
The race was motorsport's first proper foray into the region and while it had been a very successful day, the cost of transporting the cars and actually hosting the event was deemed unsustainable. That said, it definitely planted a seed for future initiatives. In 2004, the Dubai Autodrome was formally opened to the public and in 2021, 40 years after the original Dubai Grand Prix, the Historic Dubai Grand Prix Revival will aim to recapture the spirit of vintage motorsport that was abundant around the Hyatt in 1981.
Join us at the Dubai Autodrome on December 3rd for a full day of motorsport action and family fun! Get your ticket here.