Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Formula One in Egypt, 1947

The country had its first FI long before anybody in the region, Mohamed Abdel-Razek reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Imagine Formula One racing cars flying by the Nile River close to downtown Cairo. The soundtrack of the engines rumbling near the buildings around you, and thousands of spectators chanting for the world champions to record their flying laps. It’s not a hypnotic state you’re in. Witness what happened in the Gezira Grand Prix of 1947.       
The idea of putting Egypt on the Formula 1 calendar in 1947 has a lot of details that have been buried for some time now. It all started from Europe. After World War II, as most of the racing tracks were destroyed, Europeans were busy trying to pick up the pieces. Among these Euro builders was Piero Dusio, an Italian pre-war amateur racing champion who tried to think out of the box. Dusio believed Europeans might definitely be thirsty for some action to see and hear, rather than dead bodies and bombing thunders. Dusio started his plan by building a fast but cheap racing car. Breaking all the rules at the time, which recommended racing supercharged engines and cars which survived the war, Dusio built his own Cisitalia D46 in 1946. Going offbeat, Dusio along with Dante Giacosa crafted a naturally aspirated engine that produced 70bhp using Fiat parts to run the short-wheel based D46.
Surprisingly, things went from better to best for Dusio. Not only were his cars racing everywhere in the Mediterranean, but also competing on podiums, such as Tazio Nuvolari , who nearly won the Mile Miglia Grand Prix with the D46 in 1947.
After his great success in Europe, Dusio believed more in his faraway dreams. He started working on a Grand Prix project, which basically aimed to gather many talented drivers with identical Cisitalias all in one race. To get the best driver out of the ditch, Dusio chose Egypt, of all countries, to host his first race. Flat out, Dusio ordered Piero Taruffi the Cisitalia test driver to ship 16 cars to Egypt.         
Moving to the other side of the tale, King Farouk of Egypt and Sudan at that time, was a car racing enthusiast. So Farouk alongside with the Automobile & Touring Club of Egypt (1924), were no doubt the helping hands which landed the Italians on the land of the Pharaohs.  
The Italians, represented by the Circus Racing Organisation which was founded by Dusio, started putting things to work by choosing the drivers who will be racing, and laying out the track as well as establishing the rules of the race.   
On a sunny day on 9 March 1947 in Gezira, Cairo, around 6,000 spectators were in the stands eager to see the first ever Formula One event in the history of Africa and the Middle East. Another factor that turned the stands wild was the drivers who were readying to participate in the encounter: Cortese, Alberto Ascari, Pagani, Tadini, Ghersi, Brivio, Chiron, Serafini, as well as Taruffi and Dusio themselves.   
The monotype race consisted of two heats around the semi-island circular track which cut in between the Nile River on the right and the Gezira gardens on the left. That would be the view if you were looking from the driver’s seat. At the starting line, all the cars were ready and tagged with Arabic numbers.
The first heat started with 25 laps around the twisty Gezira, which was 1,480 metres long, making the total distance 37.5km. Cortese and Taruffi won the first heat along with eight other drivers. Only 10 cars qualified for the final heat.
The final heat was a bit harsh on both the cars and the drivers. Composed of 50 laps making a total of 75km, some cars broke down later in the race. At the start of the heat, Taruffi took off ahead of Cortese, who was busy fighting with Dusio and Ascari. But towards the end, the carburettor nuts in Taruffi’s car loosened, forcing him to slow down and awarding first place to Cortese and the second to Ascari.
The biggest reward was awaiting Ascari after his victory: the Sehab Almaz Bey Trophy made of solid gold, which was given to him by King Farouk in the flesh.  
This is unfortunately the last chapter of the story. Some might wonder how the bright start of motor sports in Egypt dimmed so quickly. From Dusio’s standpoint, he was very satisfied and entertained as well as the rest of the drivers, however the event itself was a financial disaster for Dusio’s Swiss investors who stepped down from the Circus. He had to pay them all by digging into his pockets and even selling his racing cars. From the Egyptian side no good explanation can be found as to why motor sports never found a place on a decent stage in the country since then.
Al-Ahram Weekly asked the most successful racing driver in Egypt, Nasser Abou Heif, whether he could unlock the mystery. “I wish I could see the day when they will empty Gezira streets for a Formula One race again. The start of modern racing Egypt was a dream come true when we started the Autocross events.
“In order for motor sports in Egypt to flourish, all the top managing bodies of the sport must be re-elected by active and notable drivers. Only then would we have a respectable sport,” said Abou Heif.
The Weekly also asked two other car racing drivers who are known to be a pair of wild dreamers. They put their first step on the track of Formula One racing, but unfortunately it was a bit late for them to do so. They are Ahmed Zidan and Shadi Osama. Each had this ambitious dream, the same one King Farouk and Dusio both once had.
“We didn’t have a domestic motor sport in Egypt in the first place to rebuild. All we had was a bunch of talented dreamers with no real financial capabilities who decided to throw the dice and wait,” said Zidan.
“When I first started racing I was filled with fresh dreams,” Osama said. “I tried a lot to get the FIA’s affiliation, but you know things here move a bit slowly.
“Hopes were raised again as we saw the first MSA licensed COC in the Middle East coming from Egypt, and 20 very capable winning-material drivers. But all that was in vain once we witnessed the birth of the so-called Egyptian Federation for Motor Racing or whatever they called it back then.
“I’m still trying, regardless of the environment, atmosphere or challenges. It’s the passion that moves me. I think I would do the same if I went back in time and had to do it all over again, only this time I will even do it better,” said Osama who managed to reach a decent level in karting, levels that usually take five to seven years of experience to reach. “We got there in only two years.”
Zidan believes the sport relies mainly on financial support. “To do it right the economy of the country must pick up first, and by picking up I mean that we must have a car industry first and then we start building proper tracks. Or we can take a short cut and find a businessman who is willing to sponsor our talented drivers to race abroad to gain the necessary experience. But they will come back home to find out we have no proper tracks in Egypt. The situation is hopeless. We need a miracle from God,” Zidan added.
Egypt seems to have a massive dilemma with no end in sight regarding its motor sport future, starting with a distinct lack of interest from officials. That is unfortunate because Egypt hosted the first ever Formula One race in its region, way before the famed Abu Dhabi event was even founded, and 57 years before the first F1 race in the other Gulf racing centre, Bahrain. The good old days remain where they are.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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