North of the Slovakian border and south of leaden skies, the Ford Fiesta Rally3 got faster. And faster. Behind the wheel was a white shirt and green-grey full-face helmet. A handful of fans had gathered, the anti-lag’s gunshot-crackle and bang echoed up and down the valley, calling out to them.
They came, and stayed, watching with interest. The M-Sport-made machine was tipped into corner after corner with growing confidence. Returning to a makeshift service park, the identity of the mystery driver was revealed – the reason for the pace more obvious.
Welcome home, 14-time Middle East Rally Champion, Mohammed bin Sulayem. This is his sport. And it could be his time.
The 59-year-old United Arab Emirates driver is running in this year’s FIA presidential election and Moravia, Czech Republic is a stop on the road towards the December 17 election to become Jean Todt’s successor.
Last week’s Barum Rally Zlín was a convenient and sensible place to park the campaign bus and deliver a message about a brighter future.
Except not right now. Right now, bin Sulayem has spun the clock back a while. Deep in conversation with M-Sport Poland managing director Maciej Woda, he’s back to his pomp.
It was, again, Spain 1992 and bin Sulayem is pondering the right tire for his Mike Little-run Group N Ford Sierra RS Cosworth 4×4. He got it right then, winning the showroom category by an astonishing 33 minutes and placing the car ninth overall on an event won by Carlos Sainz.
And it looks like he’s getting it right now.
Mohammed bin Sulayem’s career stats
|Series||Entries||Best finish||Podiums||Stage wins||Best season|
|WRC||23||6th (x1)||0||0||31st in 1993|
|PWRC||20||1st (x2)||3||43||4th in 1993|
|MERC||79||1st (x59)||73||1st (14 times)|
|Belgian||2||4th (x1)||0||0||17th in 1987|
Dialling into the discussion, the obvious question is a comparison between Group N then and its contemporary category today.
“This car is fantastic,” bin Sulayem told DirtFish, almost conspiratorially. At this point, he’s only done a few laps and is clearly still computing what’s possible from a car which costs about the same as the Group N Sierra he ran all those years ago.
“To have a proper sequential transmission is so good,” he added. “And the suspension, the balance in the car is giving you a lot of confidence.
“You know David, when I was making my career I was always quite sympathetic with cars – you had to be to get the early Group N cars to the finish. But with this car, I wanted to push it; I wanted to see what it was capable of.
“You don’t forget this feeling. Feeling the point to brake, turn-in and then starting the slide and taking the handbrake and pushing harder and harder. After 20 years, it was time for a refresher and this was perfect.
“I am very, very impressed with the Fiesta Rally3.”
There’s a brief moment – you can almost see it happening – as he switches back from driver on stage to the campaign trail.
“This car would work so well in the Middle East,” he said. “We have to look at the [FIA] regions, we have to look again at Asia Pacific, Africa, the Middle East Rally Championship – all of these places need our attention.
“We have to understand what the competitors want and what the rally organizers need. There is work to do and I want to do it.
Sport is entertainment and we need to make our sport the most entertaining of them allMohammed Bin Sulayem
“I’m not interested in putting patches on things or offering some paracetamol for medicine. I want to make a deep diagnosis of what’s needed in the regions.
“I don’t say it will be easy, it might be time to make an operation – but we can do this. From what I have seen, we can do this. These FIA regional championships have been so powerful before and we can make them the same again.”
It’s enormously refreshing to talk to bin Sulayem. Happy to shun the World Rally Championship and its bright lights in favor of landing himself a deeper understanding of rallying’s bottom and middle tiers. Right now, he’s all about rallying’s beating heartlands.
“We have to get the grassroots and the regions right,” he said. “This is where I come from. I didn’t just compete at this level, but I was also an organizer [of the UAE Desert Challenge] and working from within the national governing body.
“I have seen the sport from a lot of levels and this has given me an ability to understand the need to sit down, engage with people, to listen to them and, most importantly to take action.
“Ours is such a dynamic sport and it’s a sport that deserves and demands a dynamic approach. I will bring that.”
And with that, he’s back in the car and pushing harder again.
Following bin Sulayem across the weekend is an exhausting process. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t want to stop.
It’s fascinating to watch the way he works. As a guest of the Czech Republic Autoklub, president Jan Štovíček is keen to keep bin Sulayem on track and talking to the right people. But time after time, he’s lost to the fans. There’s time for every selfie as a five-minute transit to the car takes 10, then 15 minutes.
“The fans are everything for our sport,” he said. “It’s very easy to forget that rallying is more than a sport – for many of these fantastic people here it’s a way of life and a form of entertainment which is all-consuming.
“Sport is entertainment and we need to make our sport the most entertaining of them all. We must remember this when we’re looking towards the future.”
Mohammed bin Sulayem’s political ambition is obvious. He talks the talk. The difference here is that he still wants to walk the way we walk; he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
Rallying remains very much in his heart.