Ed Jones’ hopes of signing off the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a sixth top ten finish were dashed by mechanical misfortune at Sonoma Raceway last weekend, but the talented Dubai, UAE-born ace was nonetheless able to hold his head high at the end of an impressive maiden campaign at the pinnacle of US open-wheel competition.
Having tested at Sonoma Raceway earlier this year but never previously raced there, Jones returned to the 12-turn, 2.385-mile northern California road course for the Grand Prix of Sonoma eager to produce one more eye-catching performance before the final chequered flag fell.
The 2016 Indy Lights Champion and former European F3 Open Champion logged 42 laps over the course of a pre-weekend test day held in changeable conditions, placing 13th on the timesheets amongst the 22 high-calibre protagonists, but practice and qualifying would prove to be more of a struggle, leaving him a disappointed 18th on the grid for the race.
Undeterred, a bright start saw Jones advance five spots on the opening lap to settle into 13th position, subsequently progressing further to run 12th. The 22-year-old Brit looked set to finish inside the top ten behind the wheel of his 720bhp Dale Coyne Racing Dallara-Honda single-seater, until a right-rear suspension failure just 16 laps from home spelt an early bath.
“Sonoma was a completely different experience to the previous race at Watkins Glen, going from a super high-grip track to one that falls off really quickly,” he mused. “It was also very hot compared to Watkins Glen, where it had been on the cold side, so polar opposites really.
“When we tested there, we had a pretty decent car but the circuit conditions changed a lot between the open test and free practice. There were also cars from other series that had been on-track in the meantime, and the different types of rubber laid down made it more challenging and unpredictable.
“Qualifying clearly didn’t work out the way we had hoped. We had been aiming to be in the fight for the ‘Fast 12’, but we tried something in an effort to overcome the difficulties we had encountered in practice and while that helped in some areas, there were a few downsides as well.
“I had a good start to the race and gained quite a few positions. I attacked really hard because I knew that would be my best opportunity to make up ground, and we ran 12th for a long time with pretty decent pace. We were on-course to finish at least 11th and could maybe even have slipped into the top ten, so it was obviously frustrating to then suffer our first major technical issue of the season. Saying that, everything has gone so well this year that the law of averages dictates it was going to happen eventually.”
The failure to finish was a double blow – quite literally – given that double points were on offer for the Grand Prix of Sonoma, restricting Jones to 14th in the final standings. Nonetheless, after being presented with the prestigious ‘Sunoco Rookie of the Year’ trophy – and the $50,000 prize that accompanies it – the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé professed himself justifiably pleased with his achievements in 2017, capped by an outstanding third place in the legendary Indianapolis 500 back in May.
“It’s been a great year for us and it’s an honour to receive this award,” he enthused. “There are so many drivers in the past that have won it as rookies and moved on to be champions or won a lot of races, and I’m hoping I can be part of that story. I feel like as a driver, I got stronger as the season progressed. Early on, I had some great results and while I was driving well then, a lot of things also fell my way. Now, I think I’m better both as a driver and in terms of my bond with the team.
“Coming through the Mazda Road to Indy was key to my success this year. Before 2015, I had only raced in Europe. Learning all the American circuits was very important for me, and to be able to do that in Indy Lights was really helpful. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to gain the experience I did, which is what makes the Mazda Road to Indy so relevant for young, up-and-coming drivers like myself.
“I want to thank Dale [Coyne] and the whole DCR team for the opportunity they gave me this season, to work alongside a great group of engineers which has allowed me to progress quickly and secure some of the results we did. It’s been a fantastic year, and I hope we can do it again in 2018.”
Tara Eichenberger may just be a few months shy of her 15th birthday, but she has all the makings of a professional race driver set to take the world of Formula 4 by storm.
The Dubai-based Swiss teen started karting when she was nine-years old, but since then she has shown her mettle in various competitions in UAE and Europe.
She was even the only female in the top 50 of the world ranking for Junior Kart racing drivers in 2016.
Al Faisal Al Zubair’s journey in motorsport has taken him from the shallow depths of Middle East racing, to wading the deep end of Europe’s finest.
The transition hasn’t necessarily been seamless, but the marriage binding the Omani’s ambition and talent has made the 19-year-old sensation the poster child for the sport’s potential in the region.
Following an impressive debut in the 2016/17 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East, in which he captured both the GCC Rookie Championship and Silver title, Al Zubair parlayed his success into a step up to the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup.
Competing for Lechner Racing Middle East, the London student has had a mixed bag of results so far with two non-points finishes, one retirement and two points finishes through five races.
Coming off a promising showing at Silverstone where he crossed in 15th for three points, Al Zubair put on a strong qualifying performance to line-up in 12th for today’s sixth round in Budapest.
Three more races remain after Hungary – Stavelot in August, Monza in September and Mexico City in October – but even if Al Zubair can’t improve on his overall standing of 17th down the stretch, he’s already received an education on what it takes to be a small fish in a big pond.
“My experience so far has been amazing. The competition is very tough and every driver is extremely quick. Sometimes it is good to be amongst such a high level of driving as you find yourself raising your own levels without even noticing,” Al Zubair told Sport360°.
“My results and times are getting better and better with each race, so that is all I can hope for – I will keep working hard until the end of the season.”
Al Zubair started karting at 13 and worked his way up the ranks in Great Britain, including the BRDC British Formula 3 Championship, so a foundation was always in place for a move up to the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup.
Yet, he believes the Porsche GT3 CCME prepared him in ways he couldn’t otherwise have experienced, while also giving him a sense of belonging amongst the elite drivers.
“The Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East helped me a lot, it taught me the dynamics of how to drive a Porsche, race craft, qualifying and gave me so much track time to get used to racing the car,” he said.
“I came to Europe being on the pace with the car and felt confident to be able to compete within the grid. It’s great to be able to come from a professional set-up in the Middle East as it prepares you for competitions like the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup and makes you confident within your own ability.”
Al Zubair will return to the track in Bahrain and Dubai for the competition’s ninth season, which begins in November.
The championship will feature the regional debut of the brand-new Porsche GT3 Cup car and again give young talent a chance to shine and develop.
Al Zubair’s meteoric rise also gives every reason for fellow Middle Eastern drivers to follow suit.
“I believe the Porsche GT3 CCME is the perfect platform to start racing for young Arab drivers. It takes place at the best time of year for weather, you learn the car inside and out, you learn everything about qualifying and improving your speed,” said Al Zubair.
“There is also a real mixture of drivers, amateurs and seasoned professionals, giving every driver a goal and somebody to compete against. So yes, overall I think it is the best way to start and develop and then, if you progress well, there is a potential pathway into Europe.
“I’d like to think I am a great example of that.”