Three drivers, three different stages of their racing careers, one goal: to be a Formula 1 champion
With drivers zooming round the track at breakneck speeds, you might think Formula 1 is just a case of quick reflexes, a few turns of the steering wheel and a natural disregard for speed limits – and that it doesn’t look that difficult.
But here’s what they don’t tell you: from young drivers like Lewis Hamilton to historic greats like Ayrton Senna, these racing careers have been years in the making.
So what does it take to get to Formula 1? Three drivers at different stages of their careers tell all.
The starting line
Nine-year-old Emirati karting champion Rashid Al Dhaheri knew at age three that he wanted to get on the track.
Taking part in the annual pit walk with his family, Rashid walked up to the Ferrari box, and his luck paid off when he was invited inside for a tour.
“One of the mechanics took me in and showed me everything – then he took me to meet Fernando Alonso,” he remembers, grinning.
The Spanish racing veteran – who has been Rashid’s favourite ever since – had a few words of advice for the young fan.
“He told me to be good in school,” says Rashid. “He also said that to be a Formula 1 driver, you need to start young – and you need to practise, practise, practise.”
After his unique experience, Rashid had a one-track-mind and was determined to get into the sport.
“We were in the car, driving home from the race and Rashid said to me that he wanted to be a Formula 1 driver. I told him it might take a while,” recalls Rashid’s dad Ali.
From there, Rashid took to the track like a natural in the karting leagues under the guidance of coach Fausto Ippolito, a former Italian champion in Formula 3.
Training each weekend and competing in the karting circuit all over the world including Italy and France, Rashid has a trophy shelf stacked with all his wins – we know, we’ve seen it – and he’s determined to add even more to his collection.
“He took everyone by surprise,” says Ali. “When Rashid won a race this summer, they had to delay the trophy ceremony because they could not find the UAE national anthem; they’d never had to play it before. That showed them that there was another country that was up and coming in the sport.”
One thing is clear, though: this young speedster has no intention of ever looking back – or slowing down.
“Before a race, I’m excited and I get butterflies in my stomach,” Rashid describes. “But when the engine starts, it all disappears. When the green flag goes, there’s no back. You can only go forward.”
“When I started, I never really thought of racing as a career, it was more of a hobby,” begins the UAE’s newest Emirati F4 contender, Amna Al Qubaisi.
Amna, 17, has a bit of a distinction among the others on the track. For one, she’s female. And not only that, but she’s generally faster than her male contemporaries.
“I’ve been the only girl against over 30 boys on grid both inside and outside of the UAE,” she says. “So far, I’ve beaten so many of them, and I’ve had so many fastest laps.”
Amna was 13 years old when she got into the sport – “it might seem early to you, but it’s not in racing” – and quickly found she had some ground to make up.
But, luckily for her, she was a natural, and her flair behind the wheel soon got her noticed by the Daman Speed Academy, which provided her with the training, coaches and mechanics to succeed.
After progressing through the karting ranks and winning the UAE Rotax Max Challenge, she was finally given the chance to shift gear into Formula 4.
“So far, I’m the first from their academy to get a championship, so I’m really happy and thankful for that,” she smiles. “Formula 4 wasn’t provided here until last year, so it was quite a slow journey, but now we have so many more opportunities for racing.”
As the first female in the country to join the Formula 4 circuit, Amna flies in the face of a typically male-dominated sport – and that’s a stereotype she feels like she has a responsibility to fight.
“I’m looking forward in the next few years to not just being the first Emirati, but the first Arab female to make it to Formula 1,” Amna emphasises.
“It’s rare to find women [drivers] who are both aggressive and fast,” she adds.
“When a female driver is seen climbing the ladder, it’s a motivation to others. Slowly that process starts, and people start seeing it more – and then it becomes less surprising.
“People say that motorsport is a male-dominated sport,” Amna muses. “Women and men should be considered equal on track; women are capable and they can do it. Everybody should get the same fair race and prove what they can do.”
Team Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has had a lot of firsts.
When he raced his first Grand Prix in 2015, he was just 17 and became the youngest driver ever in the history of the sport.
After that followed yet more firsts for the young rising star: he was the youngest driver to lead a lap during a Formula 1 Grand Prix, set the fastest lap, score points, secure a podium spot and win a Grand Prix.
Raised by parents in the business – his dad Jos Verstappen was a Formula 1 driver and his mother a karting champion – it was only natural that he should follow in their tracks.
“When I was four, I saw someone else driving who was younger than me,” he tells Abu Dhabi World. “I called my dad and said I wanted to drive as well.”
Jos Verstappen wasn’t thrilled by the idea, says Max; it was actually his mum that fought for him to join the sport. Max began with karting shortly after, swiftly moving through the ranks to Formula 3 and finally to Formula 1. And when his father did eventually come around, the former driver did have some fatherly advice for his rising star son.
“Stay with two feet on the ground,” Max pauses. “Keep grounded at all times.”
As the 20-year-old’s career keeps gaining traction, we ask him if he’s ever felt that people underestimate him because of his age.
“No, I don’t think so. I never really focus so much on the age,” he comments. “I just want to win, and I want it to happen as soon as [it] can. So if that means I’m very young, I’ll take it.
“As soon as you start to show off – and now I’ve won my second race – I don’t think they underestimate me any more.”
Maybe not. But with a legion of young fans, Max does have some advice for the young hopefuls looking to follow in his footsteps.
“Always be yourself,” he says. “You need to have the right people around you, which is quite hard to find. It’s not only about being fast on track. You can always improve, and at the end of the day that will make you a better driver.”