UAE's search for a Formula One champion

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The Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

It has the fanbase, the finance, the facilities and the fondness for high-octane excitement. In F1 terms, however, there is one thing the UAE doesn’t have – a driver, let alone a champion, to call its own.

The exploits of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and their 200mph-plus counterparts might enthrall crowds across the world regardless of their nationality, but F1 audiences retain a special place in their hearts for a home winner. And for all its glamour and spectacle, the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – the seventh installment of which will unfold in November 2015 – is not going to witness that for a while yet.

– INTERVIEW: Ricciardo learning lessons from a difficult season
– Yas Marina Circuit: A track record of F1 drama and innovation

– Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Circuit guide infographic
– F1: 
Mercedes caused Red Bull/Renault split – Ecclestone

The UAE is hardly alone in this. Only 14 nations have ever produced an F1 world champion. The Drivers’ Championship trophy has been hoisted aloft 65 times; on 26 of those occasions, British or German hands have done the hoisting. There are 19 races on the 2015 F1 calendar, but only seven offer even the remotest possibility of a homegrown victor (six, if you discount any French victory in Monaco). And of the 20 drivers in this year’s F1 line-up, all but five are European.

F1’s geographical and cultural backdrop might suggest it is something of a closed shop, but sport shifts and evolves. And F1 is a sport in flux, its insatiable need for financial backing seeing it edge into new territories and away from countries where it has had a central presence for decades. Twenty years ago, even one Grand Prix in the Middle East might have been fanciful; now there are two, and Qatar wants to make it three. Azerbaijan will host its first F1 race in 2016, the European Grand Prix. Teams from F1’s traditional heartlands are feeling the financial strain, and the sport appears to be recognizing the need to rethink and reshape itself and broaden its global appeal, even by taking decisions that are not universally popular. Uncertainty for some can create opportunities for others.

Khaled Al Qubaisi, the UAE's greatest motor sports champion.

Amid this recalibration of F1’s sights, and the likelihood of it becoming an even more markedly different sport to the one graced by legends such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Ayrton Senna, what about the prospect of a UAE driver one day taking the chequered flag? Could the futuristic Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi – the new setting for the climax of a year of F1 action – see a UAE national being crowned world champion in front of their home crowd? If it is a goal, it is a long-term one – especially when you consider that only 32 men have ever realised it. It is incredibly difficult for even the most promising, naturally talented drivers to get a foothold in F1; even more difficult to win a race.

Simply becoming an F1 driver, let alone succeeding as one, requires talent, commitment, and considerable financial backing. Given F1’s global glamour and kudos, it’s not difficult to imagine significant home sponsorship coming the way of a young Emirati driver capable of making the breakthrough. The key questions are: does the talent exist; can it be unlocked and refined; and will those who possess this talent be prepared to supplement it with the immense dedication and singleminded pursuit of a dream that every aspiring F1 driver must have?

“The main objective is to offer a very high level of training to develop the skills of young UAE nationals” – Khaled Al Qubaisi

On the outlook for a homegrown F1 hero to emerge from the UAE, Khaled Al Qubaisi – the country’s greatest motorsport champion – is cautiously optimistic. It’s possible, he believes, but definitely not easy. However, he is confident that promising Emirati racers are at least receiving the support, encouragement, and specialist training that they need to have any chance of succeeding, as exemplified by the Daman Speed Academy.

Run by Abu Dhabi Racing in association with national health insurer Daman, the academy opened two years ago with the aim of not only cultivating a new generation of drivers who can compete in international motorsport – from karting, the first step on the F1 ladder, to Grand Tour, endurance racing and rallying level – but ultimately an Emirati F1 champion. “The main objective is to offer a very high level of training to develop the skills of young UAE nationals, and to prepare them for careers as professional racing drivers,” explained Mr Al Qubaisi at the time of its establishment.

Amna Al Qubaisi.

“As part of this process, we will be grooming them to become junior ambassadors for their country and role models for other young Emiratis, working to promote the leisure, sporting, and business attractions of the UAE, as well as its culture and heritage.”

Given F1’s international exposure, the benefit to the UAE of producing a leading F1 driver who is also a standard-bearer for the nation is obvious. This dual focus is reflected within the academy’s ethos, and it is why Mr Al Qubaisi, who is managing director of Abu Dhabi Racing and is overseeing the development of young Emirati drivers, believes it is “a programme that will lay the right foundations for the development of future great Emirati motoring stars”.

If self-belief is a necessity for a future F1 driver, nine-year-old Ali Al Shamsi does not lack it. One of the academy’s younger members, he is among the select few to be nurtured, mentored, and given the best possible preparation for a racing career. And he is not only adamant that the UAE can produce a champion, but certain of their identity. “It will be me!” he says.

The intensive training schedule that Ali and his fellow young drivers undergo at the academy is organised to ensure their schoolwork is not affected. In order to achieve this, all students must maintain their academic grades in order to continue at the academy. It is not easy, Ali admits. He had tough moments early in his training in karts, but the thrill of racing got him through. “The first races were hard, but now I am better, so it was good to learn,” he says.

Hamda Al Qubaisi.

“I love the speed, and how close you get to other karts. We drive a lot, and our coach teaches us how to get faster and also how to learn more about the kart.”

This love of racing spreads across genders. Sisters Hamda and Amna Al Qubaisi – Mr Al Qubaisi’s daughters – are also academy members, sharing the dream of being the first female Emirati F1 champion. Their famous father’s success is their inspiration, and in their quest to follow in his footsteps, they train hard and often.

“We do a lot of testing with our coach, who teaches us about the kart and how it works,” says Hamda, 13, who joined the academy after her 15-year-old sister. “The start of the season was hard, because everyone in my class is more experienced. “But winning the last race of the year – and being the first Emirati girl to win – was one of my highlights, as was being the first Emirati girl to represent the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission in the UAE Rotax Max Challenge. Winning feels amazing.”

Amna, the only girl selected to be among the academy’s first batch of recruits, describes the training as being demanding both on and off the track, and she has already experienced the dangerous side of racing; an experience that has bolstered her mindset. “I flipped my kart in my first race, but I was OK – it’s important to keep going and forget about it,” she says.

“We do a lot of testing on the track, but also a lot of data work, to learn about the kart, and plenty of fitness work so we can be faster. I finished on the podium three times last year, including in my home race at the Yas Marina Circuit with my parents there – I love competing against the boys, because they don’t like being beaten by a girl!”

While both girls want to be the first Emirati F1 champion, they face some healthy competition from Ahmed Al Khamisi.

“I started by joining the Daman Speed Academy, I did not do any racing before,” he says. “I did the selection day and did very well, after meeting the team with my parents, I was selected to race. Starting in junior class where the other drivers had three to four years of experience was some of the toughest moments but after a few races I was racing near the front. I won the Rotax three-hour endurance race in Al Ain with the DSA team and represented the UAE in France this year. The speed is great, I love racing close and being on the limit.”

He is confident an Emirati will one day bring home the winner’s cup.

“That’s what I am working towards,” he says.

These young drivers are not just learning how to race; they are also being given an insight into coping with the all-consuming nature of top-class sport. In addition to track testing and physical fitness, the academy provides PR and media training, to leave promising racers with no illusions about the level of scrutiny that success brings. They are given advice on healthy lifestyles, and guidance on safety and racing regulations. It builds their confidence, according to academy member Saeed Al Ali, 16, who says: “With this training, we can make it.”

Yet, for all this support, it ultimately comes down to the individual. Only the best, strongest, and most committed will have any hope of becoming an F1 driver. The acclaim and jet-set lifestyle enjoyed by three-time world champion Hamilton cannot mask the many sacrifices he, and his rivals, have had to make to get to where they are; nor the fact that for every F1 success story, countless others fall by the wayside. One of the Daman Speed Academy’s former members, Mansoor Al Suwaidi, joined the academy in September 2013 aged 14. He left within four months – deciding that setting aside his friends, school and social life in order to fully concentrate on being a champion was too much to ask.

Saeed Al Ali, a member of the Daman Speed Academy.

“It was too much work to handle,” he says. While the racing training was in Abu Dhabi, the additional work and nonrace training was often held in Dubai and interfered with his schoolwork.

While he doesn’t regret his time in the academy – describing it as “a very nice experience” – he says it was simply too much.

“We would train, which was fun, but then we would have to change the tyres and check the equipment and they would give us question sheets to fill in the next day. It was too much work. And my exams were obviously more important.”

Now 15, Mansoor still races for fun, but his professional racing ambitions are in the rear-view mirror.

“I still race but I do it for myself with my friends,” says the pupil at Al Bateen Secondary School. His F1 career hopes are firmly off the track, with aspirations to become a successful entrepreneur in business.

The concern for the UAE, as in any country with aspirations of producing an F1 driver, is that even if the infrastructure is in place, the process induces a personal toll that not everyone can take. F1 drivers must be exceptionally fit, and stay that way. They must have split-second reflexes and reaction speeds, technical intelligence, cunning, adaptability, durability, and professionalism. And they must maintain that from an early age to the point where they retire from the sport – possibly 25 years, or even more.

Inspiring such dedication requires a motorsport culture, which the UAE is looking to create. As the Daman Speed Academy aims to unearth and develop potential F1 drivers, Yas Marina Circuit houses the UAE programme for the F1 in Schools initiative, an international competition where school students are challenged to establish their own F1 team, and operate it as a mini-enterprise project – from managing budgets, developing marketing and branding strategies and sourcing sponsorship, to designing, building, and racing a miniature, gaspowered balsa wood F1 car. The circuit is the only one in the world with a facility dedicated to all aspects of the F1 in Schools Challenge.

“I love competing against boys because they don’t like being beaten by a girl!” – Amna Al Qubaisi

But recognising and embracing F1’s value in sporting, commercial and educational terms, is not, in itself, going to produce an Emirati F1 driver. If the rewards are great, so are the demands; however much you give, there is no guarantee of success. Even for a youngster with such obvious promise as Rashid Al Dhaheri, the seven-year-old Emirati who stood outside the Ferrari garage at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, was invited inside, met double world champion Fernando Alonso – and decided, aged three-and-ahalf, that he wanted to emulate the great Spaniard.

“Rashid got into it because during Formula One races in Abu Dhabi he was fascinated by the sound of engines and Formula One cars and he paid a lot of attention to Ferrari and was standing there for hours,” says Dr Ali Obaid Al-Yabhouni, Rashid’s father.

Rashid was adamant at that young age that he wanted to one day be driving among the best.

Earlier this year Rashid became the youngest ever Emirati to win an officially sanctioned kart race on the international stage despite being the youngest driver on the field

“He said ‘Daddy I want to be an F1 driver’, but I didn’t take him seriously at that moment,” says Dr Al-Yabhouni. “But he was still saying this a few days later and so I did my research and found out he could start taking lessons at the age of four. By the age of five he won his first championship.”

Rashid Al Dhaheri breaks another record as his impressive progress continues.

Nicknamed ‘Little Alonso’, Rashid underwent an intensive junior karting training programme in Italy – unique for an Emirati of his age – before making a striking impact during the 2013-14 UAE karting season. His training and development, is being overseen by Paul Chatenay, the experienced and respected UAE-based kart driver, who says of his young protégé from Abu Dhabi: “What makes Rashid special is how he listens to what you teach him, and then, without hesitation, adapts what he has been taught immediately on the track.

Dr Al-Yabhouni describes his son as “way ahead of the game”.

“There is no comparison to what Rashid has been doing to other kids,” he says. “Rashid is the youngest yet the most experience among his peers.”

The enthusiasm the pint-sized motor racing prodigy has shown for the sport has never waned, says Dr Al-Yabhouni, and the young Emirati takes his training seriously.

“Karting is similar to any other sport, the more you practise the more you succeed,” he says. “Rashid practices in general twice a week, on top of this he flies to Italy approximately once a month for races or winter training in order to get used to different driving conditions.

“I am very proud and more proud of his talent and his commitment and his motivation because sometimes he can get very tired but he cannot stop driving.”

And putting in the hours has paid off. To date, Rashid has competed in 51 races and has amassed 38 podium finishes and 21 overall victories. The Abu Dhabi schoolboy has won recognition on the international stage and has taken on and beaten young people from countries with much more established and competitive youth karting leagues, like Italy, the capital of racing sport.

Earlier this year Rashid became the youngest ever Emirati to win an officially sanctioned kart race on the international stage. The seven-year-old claimed a hugely impressive victory in the Parolin Championship held in Siena, Italy, despite being the youngest driver in the field. The victory also allowed him to move up to a higher category, competing with an older age group.

In a region wild about motorsport but without a national racing icon to call its own, excitement about Rashid and his enormous potential has not gone unnoticed in the world’s media and the young Emirati has been profiled by CNN, the BBC and the New York Times.

Despite his growing fame, Rashid still remains humble about his extraordinary talent and growing notoriety, says his father.

While there is a long way to go in Rashid’s career, the ultimate goal is to become the first Emirati F1 driver.

“I do believe the UAE can produce a F1 champion however this does not happen overnight,” says Dr Al-Yabhouni. Most of the F1 champions such as Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton started karting around four to five years old.

“The later you start the less chances you have to reach F1, that is why UAE shall focus on the very young generation to achieve this goal.”

Starting early could make a difference, but Rashid will have to compete for years before getting a shot at a F1 seat and it will take further drive and determination for him to reach the goal.

“Of course you need to be a good driver, but further you need to be a smart driver, able to analyse things quickly and take the right decision, as well as being able to understand your car and communicate with your engineer to further develop it,” says Dr Al-Yabhouni. “For now, Rashid is really dedicated to his sport, he loves racing, it is his passion, he is eager to learn new things every time he goes on track.”

If he continues on this path then there is no doubt he will be a fantastic driver in the future. “It is very difficult to predict that Rashid will be a future F1 formal champion but for sure he started at the perfect age and he is showing incredible talent,” he adds.

Rashid Al Dhaheri, or Little Alonso, wins again.

Despite his tender age, Rashid has also shown awareness about the need to build his own brand and boasts his own website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter account, amassing a dedicated following.

Rashid said earlier this year. “I never gave up following my dream despite the challenges. I started karting at the young age of five, won many races here in the UAE. Now I am racing in Italy where the competition is of the highest level. Here I can learn more and develop faster.”

Rashid is still young and he will have to perfect his driving style through karting races in mini and junior events until he is 14 years old, after which he will move to the different single-seater Formula.

Nobody is under any illusions about the extent of the challenge to nurture a homegrown winner. But hope remains.

“We want them to represent and promote our country, and help to fly the UAE flag high and proud,” Al Qubaisi has said of the Daman Speed Academy’s hopefuls. “Of course, our long-term goal is to deliver the first Emirati F1 driver. But this should not be underestimated. It will take a lot of effort to make this a reality.”

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Man on a mission: Al Tareq Al Ameri.

With the eyes of the world on Yas Marina Circuit this weekend, it is the job of Chief Executive Officer Al Tareq Al Ameri and his team to make sure the 2015 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix goes exactly as per plans and delivers the highest satisfaction and comfort to all stakeholders involved in the event.

Al Ameri spoke to Sport360 on eve of the Grand Prix, on what it takes to host an event of this stature and what successful organisation means to Yas Marina Circuit and Abu Dhabi…

– INTERVIEW: Ricciardo learning lessons from a difficult season
– Yas Marina Circuit: A track record of F1 drama and innovation

– Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Circuit guide infographic
– F1: 
Mercedes caused Red Bull/Renault split – Ecclestone

What is the importance of the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to Yas Marina Circuit, and to the city of Abu Dhabi?
The Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is extremely important to Yas Marina Circuit. It is our biggest event of the year where the eyes of Formula 1 fans and sports fans from all over the world will be watching.

We have worked extremely hard to make this an event that everyone can be proud of and we just want to create something people will want to come back to time and time again.

Since we first started in 2009, we have been working hard each year to make race weekend the region’s biggest and best sporting and entertainment proposition.

Yas Marina Circuit.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is obviously a fantastic showcase for Abu Dhabi on the global stage and we are very proud of what we have achieved since the inaugural race.

We do have a world-class facility here at Yas Marina Circuit, and with our full schedule of community events such as StartYAS, TrainYAS and GoYAS each week, and many other public events, we feel that Yas Marina Circuit, as a venue, is for the people as much as it is home to state-of-the-art racing.

We are happy for people to enjoy our circuit all year round and we do everything possible to encourage them to do so.

What can the first-time Abu Dhabi GP spectator look forward to?
They can expect a huge array of world-class entertainment on and off the track. With the GP2 and GP3 racing supporting the season finale of the world’s only twilight Formula1 race across the weekend there will be plenty to see for racing fans.

Additionally, we have an actionpacked schedule of entertainment including some of the biggest international and Arabic artists in the world. Not to mention our Oasis areas full of entertainment around Yas Marina Circuit, with more than 30 world-class street entertainers thrilling the capacity crowds of 60,000 people.

If you have to list three must-do things for the fans at Yas Marina Circuit during the F1 week, what would they be?
It’s hard to list just three, we have a lot to offer once again this year.

Obviously, the on-track action will be something no F1 fan will want to miss. For those visiting the UAE for the first time, I would recommend they pay a visit to our Emirati heritage and culture zone in the Oasis areas as we count down to UAE National Day. Finally, of course, the amazing line-up of world-class artists performing after each day of racing over the whole weekend.

Is there something new that the fans can experience this year at Yas Marina Circuit?
Our theme for 2015 is ‘Go Beyond’ and we are trying to do that across the board. While our ticket allocation is 60,000, the same as last year, we have upped our game with new additions across the board – from introducing new corporate hospitality and individual ticket packages, to bigger and better entertainment in the Oasis areas, to A-list international artists and much more.

We are also celebrating the UAE’s heritage and culture in the lead up to UAE National Day with special zones around the track

We have also upgraded our YasHUB smartphone app that allows race goers to ignite their weekend and control every aspect of their experience – from seating, entertainment, as well as the most up to date news and team/driver news – all at the touch of a button.

During the F1 week, is Yas Marina Circuit a family-friendly place? What are the things that children can do during the week? Absolutely, it’s a brilliant experience for the family and kids. I’ve mentioned the many Oasis areas around the track and they will be a source of fun for the family right across the venue. Abu Dhabi Hill is now a superb area to watch the action where you can have plenty of room and relax in the middle of one of the world’s most famous circuits. The Pit Lane walk on Thursday for three-day ticket holders is an amazing time for kids as they can see up close and personal and see teams working on the cars in each garage before the racing gets underway on the Friday.

How much time does it take for Yas Marina to put together a week like this? Can you give us an idea about what goes it to make it logistically possible?
The planning for each Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend really begins as the last one ends. Last year was an incredibly successful event which of course saw the culmination of the season ending with Lewis Hamilton picking up his second world championship. Only a few days after that race, we all sat down and began to look at how this year could be even better.

Whilst we can’t plan what happens on the track, we learn each and every year on how to make the event even better than the last.

Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and the rest of the drivers race during last year's GP.

Logistically, it’s about team work. Everyone from our team, from the F&B department, track maintenance, team liaison through to the volunteers, photographers and media all work together in making sure we deliver the most exciting and smooth Formula 1 weekend possible each year. And it is also about successfully working together with all of the Abu Dhabi stakeholders.

What are the yardsticks or parameters you have of measuring success? From Yas Marina Circuit’s perspective what would have to happen to consider this year a success?
Well, we are well on course for another sell out weekend as our capacity of 60,000 is almost full. We have sold out year-on-year, and that is testament to the way we do things here in Abu Dhabi.

For me, it’s delivering a smooth event that everyone enjoys and leaves having enjoyed the unique sporting and entertainment experience that Yas Marina Circuit offers. A high customer satisfaction is key.

From the very beginning, we wanted this event to be something that people wanted to return to again and again. To do that, you need to cater for everyone. I believe we do that and to see the 60,000 fans fans leave with smiles on their faces is the greatest measure of success for us.

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