Racing CXs in the desert. What could possibly go wrong?
Frequently, one can witness famous people on TV performing acts of a nature for which they profoundly lack the talent, relevant image or physical capability. A programme such as Dancing with the stars (or its local equivalent) is an example, as are those occasions where politicians, in a bid to appear ‘with it’, allow themselves be tempted to dance or sing their way into the hearts of the electorate. More often than not these shenanigans do more harm than good and yet time and again more than a few succumb to the same temptation.
But this is not entirely a human phenomenon. Cars can sometimes also be thrust into a performing role for which they are eminently ill-suited: the 1981 Citroën CX Celebrity Race being an especially resonant example.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates in 1981, a number of large events were organised. Probably the most prominent was the Dubai Grand Prix; the Grand Prix label being a bit dubious as this was not an FIA sanctioned event but rather a demonstration of a selection of racing cars (only two of which were current Grand Prix machines) on a 2.6km long circuit constructed especially for the occasion. Birmingham entrepreneur Martin Hone, who had previous experience in organising motor racing events in his home country, was enlisted by the sheiks to put together the show.
Hone delivered and managed to lure an impressive selection of cars and famous racing drivers to the Gulf: the 40,000 strong public were treated to the spectacle of demonstrations featuring, amongst others, a Mercedes-Benz W196, Maserati 250F, Porsche 910, Lola T70 MKIIB, Ferrari 512S and 330P4 and Aston Martin DBR4. The two contemporary F1 cars present consisted of the somewhat uneven match (from opposing ends of the grid) of a McLaren MP4-1 and Theodore TY01.
The rollcall of drivers for the event was not too shabby either: Jack Brabham, Derek Bell, Dan Gurney, Patrick Tambay, John Watson, Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori, Innes Ireland, Phil Hill, Richard Attwood, Denny Hulme and even Juan Manuel Fangio were some of the big names present.
The first race to open festivities, perhaps inspired by the popular BMW M1 ProCar races that preceded every F1 Grand Prix in 1979 and 1980, was the Citroën CX Celebrity Race. Abdul Wahab Galadari, the Citroën importer, provided sixteen identical CX GTi’s as the weapon of choice for the event. The cars were fitted with roll cages and some other necessary modifications to make them comply with racing safety rules but were otherwise just like any CX GTi a customer could drive out of the showroom.
Despite the CX being a questionable choice for circuit racing, notwithstanding some respectable performances in rallying, it would result in an exciting spectacle for the viewers.
Qualifying for the celebrity race took place the day before, with several drivers being a bit naughty by cutting corners on track to gain time, including polesitter Dan Gurney. The race itself was over ten laps, John Watson making an excellent start – taking the lead into the first corner before spinning out having being clouted by the CX of Marc Surer – the Belfast man becoming the first retirement.
Bruno Giacomelli then inherited the lead and would eventually win the race, although David Kennedy ran him very close by taking advantage of the CX’s compliant suspension to cut the majority of corners and take shortcuts through the sand – this race was of course seen as just a bit of fun to all involved so no penalties ensued. Only half of the sixteen GTi’s would make it to the finish.
As one would expect, the brand new CX’s were in less than perfect health after those ten gruelling laps. Amazingly, the maintenance crews managed to restore all of them to more or less raceable condition again because they would be raced once more for another ten laps at the end of the event, but this time driven by local officials and military personnel. We can likely safely conclude that the next stop for the sixteen poor Citroëns was the local wrecking yard.
Despite the good spectator turnout and positive press, the 1981 Dubai Grand Prix would remain a unique event. Dubai has grown substantially since and the street circuit has gradually dissolved into the current Dubai road layout.