What are the chances of the UAE producing a champion F1 driver in the future? We take a look at the bumpy but exciting road ahead…
A world-class racetrack? Check. A love of exotic sports cars? Check. Fans with an insatiable appetite for speed? Check. A homegrown F1 champion driver? Not yet.
As the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix revs up for another thrilling outing here in the capital, the thought of one day witnessing the first Emirati or UAE-trained champion on motorsports’ grandest stage seems a distant dream. Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s only a matter of time.
Cultivating a winner
The reality is that it requires more than just a fascination for cars and a need for speed to produce drivers that are of F1 calibre.
A combination of many factors – quality training, personal discipline, local and international exposure and financial backing – must all come together to build a sound motorsport programme on par with F1 powerhouses such as Germany, Brazil and Great Britain.
Nobody knows this better than Richard Cregan, whose 30 years of vast industry experience saw him shift gears from being a mechanic and rally driver to managing
Toyota’s F1 team and then to serving as CEO for Yas Marina Circuit.
“It takes a while to create a culture of motorsport. It takes time to find young people who are dedicated because you have to be committed to succeed in motorsports, and not just see it as a hobby,” says Cregan, who now heads the UAE-based motorsports events consultancy firm, Rasgaira.
Barry Hope founder of Gulf Sport Racing agrees, saying that the development of a mature motorsport market normally takes several generations.
“Europe and the USA have developed widespread interest and passion for this expensive sport over a hundred years, by contrast,” he comments.
The UAE’s demographics, composed mainly of expats, also means that only a few might be willing to devote time, effort and money on a high maintenance sport such as motor racing.
“Generally, Emirati youth are very interested in driving cars, but their parents are uncertain about the risks of racing despite having two of the safest and best run circuits in the world. Commercial sponsorship is still rare in the UAE also,” says Hope.
Speaking of sponsorship, motorsport, by all means, is not cheap with pre-F1 training and racing spanning ten to fifteen years, requiring an investment of at least $10 million (about AED 37 million).
“All the UAE has to do is encourage local families to embrace the sport and then be prepared to finance the career of the most promising and committed of them.”
“These young drivers need backing from the authorities, the same way as with any other sport. You want to make sure that you mix and balance time between motorsport and education, which is very important,” says Cregan.
Paving the way
There are tournaments and venues available across the UAE for young aspiring drivers wanting to get behind the wheels.
For starters, the Al Ain Raceway, Dubai Autodrome and Al Forsan International Sports Resort in Abu Dhabi all feature kart circuits used for both recreation and competition purposes.
There are also domestic karting tournaments such as the Rotax Max Challenge between October and April, and the Al Ain Endurance Championship.
“Karting can start at the age of six. For ambitious drivers, the earlier they start the better, as most competitors in Formula One will have gained some ten to fifteen years of high quality racing experience before getting to F1,” says Hope.
Likewise, there’s the Formula Gulf Academy from Gulf Sport Racing – a youth driver development platform for those looking to move on from karting to full scale car racing on a reasonable budget.
The Daman Speed Academy – a joint initiative by Abu Dhabi Racing and Daman – is another training hub founded to develop young Emiratis to become professional racing drivers through workshops, seminars, lessons and track-time.
An exciting development to boost the UAE’s grassroots racing scene this year is the hosting at Yas Marina Circuit of one of the races in the 18-round Formula 4 or F4 race championship.
Established in 2014 by the Federation Internationale de I’Automobile (FIA) – the governing body of motor sport racing events – the series is open to drivers 15-years-old and above is designed to bridge the gap between karting and Formula 3, making it a significant springboard to the big leagues.
The duo of Jonathan Aberdein from South Africa and Logan Argeant from the USA finished first and second, respectively in the Abu Dhabi leg of the competition.
Among the regional racers to stand out, Ahmad Al Muhannadi and Abdulrahman Tolefat from Qatar were the fastest.
Participating in F4 under the Rasgaira team are Emirati drivers Saif ben Sulayem, son of Mohammed ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and Emirates Motorsport Federation, and 16-year-old karting star Amna Al Qubaisi.
“I believe that the groundwork is there and the F4 is certainly a good stepping stone for our local drivers to advance and go to the next level,” says Cregan.
“When I came back in 2008 we talked about having an F1 driver from the UAE within ten years. I supposed I became more realistic as time went on.
“We have some good talents at the moment but it will perhaps take five to six years before we have a name who can compete at that level.
“You have to remember, it’s one thing competing and another thing being competitive; you’ve got to have track time, you’ve got to have experience. We have a lot to learn but we’ll get there, hopefully.”
UAE drivers to watch:
Rashid Al Dhaheri
Watching the 2011 Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix live inspired the now eight-year-old Rashid to dream of becoming a pro racer someday. He made his kart-racing debut at the UAE Rotax Max Challenge in 2013 after undergoing intensive training in Italy the same year.
Saeed Al Ali
A product of the Daman Speed Academy, Saeed finished third overall – winning rounds in Oman, Dubai and Al Ain – in the 2015-2016 season of the UAE Rotax Max Challenge.
Amna Al Qubaisi
The 16-year-old racer is determined to be the first female driver since 1992 to compete at F1. Just last year, she became the only female Emirati racer to participate at the Rotax Max Challenge finals in Portugal.