In the latest of our ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’ series, we talk to Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and FIA vice president. Ben Sulayem has been the beating heart of Middle East motorsport for more than three decades, first as a successful rally driver and now as a key member of world motorsport’s governing body.

The 14-time Middle East Rally Championship winner has enjoyed a storied career both in and out of the driver’s seat and reflects here on some of the key moments in his life in motorsport – from death-defying exploits to memories of Bernie Ecclestone and Michael Schumacher.

I drove my first car aged 10 and have never looked back.
When I sat in my father’s car as a child I was fixated on the speedometer, watching it go up and down and hoping one day I could be in control. In this part of the world, there is such a love of cars and growing up, it was mainly American cars with big engines here. I first drove my father’s Land Rover in the desert when I was 10 and since that moment, my passion for cars has never cooled or softened.

Rally driving found me, I didn’t know what it was until 1981.
I was driving down Al Ain Road and came across this rally. I had never heard of rally and knew nothing of the Middle East motorsport scene. But I told them I loved cars so they invited me to come back the next year to participate. My father was in politics so I didn’t want to use my real name. I entered my first race as Mohammed Mohammed and I won. I had no idea of the rules, I just knew how to drive.

Speed is not everything; preparation is everything.
As a racing driver, it is about understanding what you are driving, calculating the weather, calculating your opponents. I did not always rely on my speed. The heat could be catastrophic when racing – it would reach 77 degrees Celsius in a car. You need great mental strength and planning. Travelling at 240kph, you must know the braking points. If you slow early you lose. If you brake late, you lose. Your markers are the red sand on the left, a dead tree on the right. You write it in your notes, you have to prepare. I was totally devoted and this was how I became successful. It was never easy but while my opponents were socialising in the evenings, I was out in the desert practicing.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem is a 14-time Middle East Rally Championship winner.

I sometimes wished I wasn’t in the driving seat.
In that last 30 seconds on the start line before the race begins, I would often look around and wish I was the guy standing at the side watching. The stress and anticipation was almost too much to bear. But then after 10 seconds when you start, the first corner, I didn’t want to be anyone except myself. You become totally focused. Your blood pressure goes up, your eyes bulge, you don’t know anyone. Honestly, if my brother came in front of me I wouldn’t know. I’m just so determined to win. It takes physical strength and mental strength.

French TV nominated me for a ‘bravest sportsman’ award in 1988.
It was after I won the Dubai Rally driving with a broken neck. I had four bolts and a plate inserted afterwards but never thought of stopping. Honestly, I am standing here blessed by god that I am alive, that I am still in one piece. I was burned in a fire after a crash in Lebanon and nearly died. Motorsport is dangerous, it will also be so, but I want other people to avoid these things. At the FIA, we are pushing road safety and sport safety hard – we have to make motorsport safer.

A safer race is NOT a more boring race.
This notion that safety cannot go hand in hand with excitement is for people who have tunnel vision. They are not mutually exclusive. When we first spoke about the ‘halo’ on F1 cars, many people were against it. People naturally don’t like change. But then we see this weekend that Charles Leclerc’s life is potentially saved by the halo in the Belgian Grand Prix. Technology is a blessing. I find it amazing that cars have less power now but they are faster because they are more efficient.

I remember at a World Motorsport Council meeting and someone said ‘we need the noise’ of an engine. Bernie Ecclestone said ‘excuse me that it is a sound, never call it a noise’. I have a lot of time for Bernie and speak to him frequently. He is the grandfather of Formula One and he was always willing to consider change – that was a great strength. When you think there are no more changes, you should leave this sport.

Mohammed ben Sulayem has overseen a dramatic improvement in motorsport facilities in the UAE.

I was once told Middle East motorsport shouldn’t be represented at the FIA.
Fifteen years ago, people would have said it was impossible for an Emirati to be on the board of the FIA. In fact there was one guy who told me, ‘we will never accept anyone in the FIA from your part of the world’. He was just ignorant. I didn’t retaliate and instead it encouraged me to work hard. I realised that most people did not think like them and sure enough we were embraced. Now we have two Grands Prix in the Middle East, in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. I am so proud of this.

We could have an Arab F1 driver.
Ten to fifteen years ago you might say it is impossible. Circuits never existed in this part of the world. Who would take their son at the age of six or eight and move to Europe? Now Middle East motorsport is booming. We have two certified circuits in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. You have a go-kart track in both of them, a go-kart track in Al Ain, in Ras-al-Khaimah, another one is being built in Jebel Ali. You have facilities in Bahrain, in Qatar, in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in Oman. I attended the inauguration of the new circuit in Kuwait in March. If someone wants to do it he doesn’t have to travel anymore.

But there needs to be commitment from those with talent. Since I retired in 2002, we haven’t had anyone come through and be really dominant in Middle East motorsport. We need new blood and new heroes. I am trying hard to uncover the talent but it is not just about being good at racing. We need people prepared to put the hours and the work – people who want to learn. You can’t turn up and think you know everything. If you have that approach it is over for you. This has been a problem.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem wants to discover determined, talented local drivers.

I admire a lot of drivers, but Schumacher stands out.
Michael Schumacher really was totally devoted to the sport and I feel fortunate to have had a great friendship with him. It is very sad what has happened to him. He is a really, really smart man – so many of the drivers love the fame but he just loved the driving. He had incredible discipline and I once asked him when was the moment he decided to retire. He said ‘when I started making mistakes’. That says it all. Among the current drivers, Kimi Raikkonen is also great. He leaves to go rallying and then comes back to Formula One and is on the podium. An unbelievable racing driver. And a great character. I like Fernando Alonso too, another intelligent driver.

Motorsport was very good to me. I feel in debt to it.
The Middle East motorsport landscape is changing rapidly but is healthy right now. In the UAE, I don’t believe we need to grow any more. We need to improve what we have. We have great events: the Formula One for 10 years, the cross-country World Cup in Abu Dhabi, the Baja World Cup in Dubai. Plus the 24-hour race, plus our national events. We must concentrate on making these events the best they can be. People love anything new but after two or three years, people want something else. To keep reinventing and keep the interest of the Middle East motorsport audience is key.