m i l l i o n a i r E PA S S I O N & P O W E R

Driving Mohammed ben Sulayem

Tag Heuer

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Fast cars, Hard rock and a nation’s identity

For a lot of us, it might be enough to own a Ferrari Enzo, a limited edition Porsche 911 GT 1, a Mercedes CLK GTR Limited Edition, a Ferrari F40, a Ferrari F50, a Jaguar XJ220, a Porsche Carrera GT, a 1963 Cadillac and a Mercedes SLK 55 with a 665HP SLR engine or to count Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Jackson as friends. But Mohammed ben Sulayem, the founder President of UAE Desert Challenge, the winner of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship 14 times and 60 other individual rallies, does not impress himself easily

text Shalini Seth

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L

ikes children – this might be an unusual way to describe someone who has been the middle East rally Champion 14 times; but it is one of the first things you hear about mohammed ben Sulayem, who recently pledged away his income from being the brand ambassador of Tag Heuer to Save the Children. Ben Sulayem, for those who came in late, has won more Fia regional championships and more international rallies than any other racer in history. His premier event has been the Fia middle East rally Championship. in a country where ownership of the right car and number plate can get you on to the Hot 100 list, Ben Sulayem became famous a couple of years ago for having a mercedes SlK 55 amG retooled to accept a modified Slr engine, giving the car more than 740bhp and 1,200nm (885lbft) of torque. The modified SlK has a higher top speed (an estimated 350kph) than the production Slr and was captured on film outperforming a Ferrari Enzo. as owner of the company Ben Sulayem Performance, he and his team have made super-high performance modifications to a variety of sports and luxury cars. “That is for me,

“When I Walk Into a space I knoW What Is goIng on, I’d knoW hoW many cameras there are. I’d knoW What Is tIlted, Who Is talkIng. you buIld It for survIval. you knoW you have to enhance It lIke a muscle”

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Mohammed ben Sulayem raced his Ferrari Enzo against the modified SLK. The Enzo lost

personally. it does not make money. it is for my cars and me,” he says when i ask him if a car fanatic can hope for a personal encounter with a legend at his company. You would stand a higher chance of shaking his hand if you were a child, though. “Ya’ll remember mohammed ben Sulayem, right? Well, i met him today – him and his gorgeous SlK,” enthuses a kid who confesses that he was on his way home from school when an SlK with two black patches on the hood caught his eye. “i get close and see that those black patches were actually the engine sticking out of the hood… i was even more shocked when i read Slr on the engine,”

relates the child whose enthusiasm for things that move on tyres is shared by like-minded people on an online forum. Ben Sulayem notices the boys who hover near his house admiring his cars – now including a Ferrari Enzo, a limited edition Porsche 911 GT1 of which only 19 were made, a mercedes ClK GTr limited Edition, a Ferrari F40, a Ferrari F50, a Jaguar XJ220, a Porsche Carrera GT, and the mercedes SlK 55 with a 665HP Slr engine. and, of course, at the Four Seasons Golf Club at Dubai’s Festival City, Ben Sulayem makes his appearance in a rolls royce, plate number 5. “There are a few of them [boys] actually. They hang around outside my house. i tell them, come and see. This one was sitting there outside. i brought him to my majlis. i showed him the cars he wanted to see – it is like fulfilling a dream for him. it only cost me a few minutes,” the legend smiles. The boy, like men three times his age, was as awestruck with the car as he was with the man. The fan recounts: “at first i didn’t recognise him, but he told me [who he is] later on. my first reaction was to point speechless at the hood. He told me he got the engine and put it in himself and changed the transmission, and it’s a rWD [rear-wheel drive]. He said it had 615hp, and could go well over 350kph. He told me he had already been up to 320! He said it’s a one of a kind, and that amG are coming >

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m i l l i o n a i r E PA S S I O N & P O W E R

Bob McCaffrey and Total Communications

Ford GT 500

to Dubai just to see it… oh, and the sound, mind blowing!” The fan won himself a few of his own, having witnessed the only one of its kind SlK-Slr mating in the world.

“an Idea that We had last year – drIve WIth the champs. In one hour We collected $100,000. four of them paId to drIve WIth me and one guy paId not to get In the car! he Was so scared!”

CARLOS, JESúS, MOHAMMED
For Ben Sulayem it is a simple matter, born out of years spent wowing the crowds at various rallies all around the world. “When i went to Spain, they said ‘the arabs invade Spain again’,” he recounts with a smile. “When i finished third, the headlines in the newspaper the next day were ‘Carlos, Jesús, mohammed’, because the three of us [Carlos Sainz and Jesús Puras; and Ben Sulayem at the asturias rally in 1987] were the first three.” Grown-up fans, however, have become the fuel for his other love these days – charity. “an idea that we had last year – drive with the champs. it would give me the sensation of being in a rally car, a good car, and it would give the people who wanted to a chance of doing it. in one hour we collected $100,000. Four of them paid to drive with me and one guy paid not to get in the car! He was so scared!” says Ben Sulayem. as a rally driver who has burned rubber with Kimi räikkönen and michael Schumacher, (“it’s not that i know them; they are my friends”) one has to ask what they have in common. “it’s [about] being sharp, being aware of everything that is going on. When i walk into a space, for instance, even here, i know what is going on, i’d know how many cameras there are. i’d know what is tilted, who is talking… We share this awareness, this reaction [to our environment]. it’s not something you build >

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Bob McCaffrey and Total Communications

Unchallenged As a driver, Mohammed ben Sulayem has won more FIA regional championships, and more international rallies, than any other competitor in history.
Bob McCaffrey and Total Communications

He has been Middle East champion 14 times, having scored 60 rally wins in the FIA Middle East seriesM and two Group N successes in the FIA World Rally Championship, in Spain and Argentina. Ben Sulayem captured his first FIA Middle East Rally Championship title in 1986, and has not been beaten to the Middle East crown since, winning it each year with the exception of 1992, 1993, and 1995 – years when he did not contest the series because of overseas rally programmes. Sulayem was Middle East champion in: 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. He last competed in 2002, although he has not officially retired from competitive rally driving. But whether he returns to the sport or not in the future, his record is unlikely ever to be seriously challenged. Mohammed ben Sulayem is the President of the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE and the driving force behind the UAE Desert Challenge since the time he launched it in 1991.

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because you want to show off. You build it for survival. You know you have to enhance it like a muscle,” he says. not having seen him compete in a rally since 2002, the motor sport world is eager to know if the unbeatable will return. “i say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. i have not retired. it’s just that Dubai demands a lot now. Before it was very peaceful – my mind and my body. i have to be honest with myself although i say something else to people. People don’t know the pressure in a rally car. if my mind is somewhere else and my body is in the car it is an invitation to disaster. You think if i want to go back to motor sport tomorrow and drive a rally car, find a sponsor it will be difficult for me? it will. But will it be impossible? no. “i can go back. it is not the money. it is me. it is a dangerous. i asked michael Schumacher why he retired. He said, ‘i started making mistakes’. i understand that. To me that is more than enough of an answer.” Ben Sulayem is impulsive and forthcoming, speaking about his love for his people (“i think the edge is to take care of your own people”), his time with himself (“[friends] don’t have the time and they cannot make the time because the time is not theirs; mine belongs to me”) and his anxiety about the future of Dubai (“it’s very sad to hear my son saying to me ‘i feel like a stranger

here’… believe me, a 12-year-old saying this – it hurts”). in the UaE, which is home to him and his cars, Ben Sulayem is visibly affiliated to various causes – whether it is the roads and Transport authority exhorting people to drive safely, or the F1 coming to abu Dhabi or working with children with special needs. He is the President of the aTCUaE, the officially nominated representative in the Emirates of the Fia, the motor sport’s global governing body, and its motorcycling and classic car counterparts, the Fim and FiVa. Then, in the time that he has left over he is busy with his commitments to the national identity authority. That does not stop him from taking on more. “i’m doing something extra that i enjoy. me, Tag Heuer and the children,” he says. The UaE Desert Challenge, which is Ben Sulayem’s brainchild, is the final in the annual series of nine rally-raids which comprise the Fia World Cup for Cross Country rallies, catering for offroad cars and trucks, and also the fifth and final round of the Fim Cross Country World Cup for motorcycles. it is the only event of its kind which allows amateur enthusiasts to compete along with world champions on two and four wheels. “We have a great tracking system. With all the communication and support of the government with people and helicopters >

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ben sulayem had a mercedes slk 55 amg retooled to accept a modIfIed slr engIne. the modIfIed slk Was captured on fIlm outperformIng a ferrarI enzo

Ben Sulayem’s fleet includes the Mercedes, Porche and Ferrari marques

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Mohammed ben Sulayem flanked by his Ford GT and Rolls-Royce

we can control safety. Because in the desert passion is one thing, but it is about stamina and being smart if you want to survive. it’s demanding, it’s hot, it’s long, it’s dry, you lose your senses if you don’t stick to the rules,” he says, giving a glimpse of the gruelling desert drives at which he excels.

why would they close? it is a business. and number three, i can assure you they will not run out of hamburgers and alcohol.”

DUBAI
Ben Sulayem belongs to the generation of people who put Dubai and the UaE on the world map. it is not a surprise that, like most of his ilk, he is involved in the secondary stage of consolidation of heritage and standard of living. “i think we have enough buildings, and i do believe that is not the most important thing. it’s very good to have the best, the highest buildings – it’s excellent – but once you do it you only look for something else, like biggest stores or whatever. But i think that we should look at institutes also. i think that when they talk about [national] identity, it’s real. We should look at the UaE instead of looking at how to be the best in the world. The most important thing in all infrastructure is human beings, my nationals,” says Ben Sulayem who spoke at the national identity Conference as the member of the country’s sport elite. in an interview reminiscent of Millionaire’s first one, with ahmad bin Byat, then the Director General of TECom, he is deeply appreciative of the values of his forefathers, loves the desert, and is worried about the new generation.

HARD ROCK CAFÉ
His patience does have its limits though, like when it comes to the Hard rock Café. UaE’s diarists and bloggers went on a signature campaign to save their favourite hangout when it was reported in march that the iconic café might be demolished to make way for a skyscraper. Facebook.com even came up with a group to support the HrC, where Ben Sulayem took another of his friends, performer michael Jackson, to enjoy the chicken wings. “Why are they worried, it’s none of their business. it’s my money. i am still a partner. i am 50 per cent owner of that. if it makes a profit i make 50 per cent of it, if it loses, so do i. i am the partner – for the good and the bad. “i said it publicly on the radio. it’s an issue between me, my partner and my landlord and the department. and, by the way, it’s moving, not closing. What we are looking at is a smooth transition somewhere where it will have even more business… number two,

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“i remember a policeman who did not know my father misbehaved a little. When his boss came, he saluted my father, and the policeman was scared. We were kids about 10 years old and we shouted ‘father, do something, punish him’. But he just said: ‘Shh’. Then he gave a lecture to the policemen. later he said to us: ‘listen sons, you do not do something bad just because you can’.” as for his commitment, which is the quality he believes drives growth, Ben Sulayem says: “For 20 years i did not divert. That is what it takes. i had to have major surgery, but did it stop me? no. i drove a rally car in casts, with broken vertebrae, and i won the championship. But not everybody can be mohammed, and i am not like them. Some people need a push, some people do not need a push. Some people, when you tell them ‘you are the best’, they become better; some people become big-headed. Every person is different,” he says. But like those of his generation and the one before that, he is careful of the ties he has made with the rest of the world. “ah, i lived in Karachi…” he tells me. “my father was in Delhi. He was the head of Delhi radio station in the Forties, of the arabic section. We used to listen to him here during the Second World War. He knows the Hindi language too. He was the minister of Finance and Economic affairs here,” he says.

Ben Sulayem has probably seen Dubai being pegged on the mind maps of people the world over as he went around winning rallies, conquering not only Dubai, oman, Kuwait, Saudi arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar but also two Fia World rally Championships in Group n in Spain and argentina. “internationally, they didn’t know. There were people in lebanon and in Jordan who did not know where UaE and Dubai were. in lebanon, they thought i was from Saudi arabia. Honestly, not one or two or 20 or 100. They just did not know where Dubai was. But they knew where mohammed ben Sulayem came from and then they looked for that,” he says. as brand ambassador of watch manufacturer Tag Heuer, which has a long association with Formula one racing, Ben Sulayem joins the ranks of Formula one drivers Kimi raïkkönen and Juan Pablo montoya, tennis player maria Sharapova, golfer Tiger Woods and actor Shahrukh Khan. are watches a passion too? “Someone was asking me how passionate i am about watches. i’ll give you a story,” he says. “my elder brother stopped my money. it was about my motor sport. He said ‘i will not let you spend money and kill yourself’. So i sold one of my two cars. Then i looked at the watches that i got when i was getting married. i sold three. i regretted it, but i had to race!”

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“I drove a rally car In casts, WIth broken vertebrae, and I Won the champIonshIp. but not everybody can be mohammed, and I am not lIke them”